Food Policy

America's Families Still Revile USDA-Funded School Lunches

The central planning of America's public school lunch menus has been a disaster.


Last week, as countless Americans around the country celebrated School Lunch Hero Day, which honors school lunchroom staff, parents and students were busy complaining furiously about the frequently inedible food those heroes serve our nation's public school students. Unlike School Lunch Hero Day, which just turned 10, such complaints about government-provided school lunches are an annual tradition that's been going on for generations.

In Baltimore, for example, parents are complaining about the foods served to kids throughout the county. "They said their children's milk has had chunks in it," Fox Baltimore reported last week. "Some of the food has been moldy, they said." The report also notes that "what looks like a lump of brown meat on white bread" in one photo—an extremely charitable description—is "actually a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

School lunch horror stories such as these are ubiquitous. In Springfield, Massachusetts, families are complaining about moldy food and "pizzas with discoloration" that one school served to kids. Students and parents in Michigan complained earlier this year about "nasty" school-lunch food. In North Carolina, a debate team launched a fight against the "abhorrent provisions" their school serves. Just outside St. Louis, Missouri, a county health department is investigating complaints about food served by a local public high school, including student illnesses, roaches, mice, and moldy and spoiled food. It is at least the fifth time this school year the health department has investigated the school's food service.

A University of Chicago researcher studying school food, Karlyn Gorski, explained this week that she found "still-frozen vegetables and nibbled-on rolls" in the meals she's purchased at one Chicago public school. Last year, Buzzfeed posted photos of some particularly gross school lunches, including this little bit of sadness. Parental complaints that some of this food resembles that served to prisoners doesn't miss the mark.

While school lunchroom staff shouldn't be blamed for the quality of the food they serve—they neither select nor buy the food—the real school lunch heroes, in my opinion, are the parents and kids speaking out against the wasteful National School Lunch Program and the abysmal food it provides to many of our nation's children. Under that decades-old program, schools generally receive around $3 per meal served. Just $1 of that $3 goes towards food. The rest—$2, or twice as much as schools spend on food—goes to overhead and other costs. 

As I explained in a 2019 column, former First Lady Michelle Obama's signature 2012 overhaul of the National School Lunch Program modified meal requirements for sodium, whole grains, milk, and produce. That was supposed to make the food healthier. But those reforms, I explain in my book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, caused costs to soar, spurred students and school districts to flee the program in droves, and created such "unprecedented mountains of food waste" that kids were putting more food in rubbish bins than they were in their mouths. I cited research showing that around 90 percent or more of salad, unflavored milks, and vegetable sides served by schools end up in the trash.

But don't blame hungry kids for wasting food. Centralized planning of school meals is an inherently unworkable idea.

"Meals must both help fight obesity and ensure all students get sufficient calories," I write in Biting the Hands that Feed Us. "They must contain foods kids want to eat, but also must be healthy. Meals must be so generalized that they cater to the food preferences of all of America's millions of public-school students while also ensuring that they appeal to students who practice all sorts of diets." That includes vegans, Atkins dieters, kosher eaters, and the like. And in case you're wondering if some bureaucrats in Washington answered a question the world's restaurateurs have not—How can I serve a meal that everyone will like and eat?—they haven't.

Noting rising student protests and food waste—or perhaps just wanting to undo anything that had the Obama imprimatur on it—the Trump administration rolled back the Obama administration's changes to the school lunch program soon after taking office. But Trump's plan, I explained in a 2020 column, was just as unlikely to achieve anything of substance:

Critics of the Obama administration's school-lunch reforms, me included, argued the changes meant both soaring costs and mountains of food waste. Critics of the Trump administration's school-lunch reforms, me included, argue the changes mean school lunches stink like they used to and offer students lower-quality food.

Those phenomena are playing out in school lunchrooms across the country. This week, for example, the elementary school lunch menu in Lake Tahoe, NV featured corn dogs and pizza. Fulton County, GA lunches for elementary students included a turkey and cheese croissant, popcorn chicken with a breadstick, and mini pepperoni calzones. In Montgomery County, MD, this week's elementary lunch menu included beef Sloppy Joe sandwiches, veggie burgers, and pepperoni and cheese stuffed sandwiches. In Elmore County, AL, elementary students could choose from such lunch entrees as corn dogs, cheesy bread with marinara, pizza, boneless wings, and a warmed ham and cheese sandwich. Students at one Pasco, WA elementary school were offered lunch entrees that included a chicken burger with cheese, nachos, "mini calzones pepperoni," or a "Pepperoni Ripper." In short, school lunches still suck a lot.

When it comes to school lunch both the Obama and Trump administrations dropped the ball, "creat[ing] new problems instead of offering a solution," I wrote in 2020. "Ultimately, politics should have nothing to do with the foods kids eat at school."

What would a politics-free solution look like? Well, I outlined one almost exactly a decade ago. It involves having families who can afford to pack their kids' lunches to do just that, and to use high-quality, leftover food from restaurants and grocers to provide food for kids whose families cannot afford to make lunches daily. That would improve the quality of food students eat; cut the USDA's wasteful budget dramatically; eliminate the need for school lunchrooms and the staff who work in them; and finally combat food waste in a serious and widespread manner.

The USDA's role under such an approach? I don't see any need for one at all. Centralized federal government control over foods served in schools is the problem, not the answer.