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USDA School Lunches Still Stink

School's back in session, and that it means time for reports of crummy government-approved school lunches

Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/TNS/NewscomRicardo Ramirez Buxeda/TNS/NewscomGrade-school students typically return to school from summer break in August and September. Almost without fail, tales from the tragedy that is the USDA's National School Lunch Program begin to filter out by the end of September.

Earlier this month, seventh grader Madison Smith and some of her middle school peers at Madisonville Public School in Madisonville, Tennessee, found what appeared to be maggots in granola sold at the school. The good news, I guess, is that the bugs may have been mites instead of maggots, and the school apologized and assured concerned parents in a Facebook post that such problems wouldn't happen again.

The bad news, besides the fact kids found bugs in their food in the first place, is that at least one more student found a bug in his food just days later, after the school system had assured parents it'd solved the problem. The bugs led angry parents to call out the school board at a previously scheduled meeting.

These parents are hardly the only ones angry about school lunches. In Greenfield, Indiana, reports indicate parents "are upset after they say their children were served two breadsticks as their main entrée for lunch this week."

The state defended the practice, saying it jives with USDA school-lunch rules because the school also served a protein with the breadsticks, namely a cheese dipping sauce.

"Cheese, per the USDA, is considered a protein and therefore we see schools that offer that sometimes as a protein," said a spokesman.

The practice seems widespread. Other schools that participate in the USDA school lunch program in Indiana engage in similar practices.

"[A]ccording to USDA requirements, even the least appetizing meals seem to fit their standards," including, reported Indiana affiliate RTV6, a meal served at another school that was centered on "a hotdog bun with melted cheese on top."

No one should think this is acceptable. But it's also just the tip of the iceberg.

If you need any more convincing that the USDA National School Lunch Program is awful, you should buy my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, which is chock full of data (and many more anecdotes) that drive home this point. More hopefully, it also shows how parents and kids are fleeing the program.

"According to federal government data," I report in the book, "the USDA School Lunch Program served 258 million fewer lunches in 2014 than it did at its high point, in 2010. The number of students paying full price for school lunches today—now 8.8 million— is at its lowest point in recorded history. That's a drop of more than 50 percent in full-price lunch sales since 1970."

You could blame these poor outcomes—or today's school lunch menus that serve kids unfathomable foods such as chili crispitos—on the Trump administration, which rolled back recent school-lunch reforms driven by then-First Lady Michelle Obama. But, as I detailed in a 2014 column on Mrs. Obama's reforms, the new and improved lunches developed under her watch featured such nutritious lunches as whole grain pepperoni pizza, hot dogs with tater tots, and whole grain chicken nuggets with blueberry bread.

In other words, school lunches have sucked no matter whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. Today, though, thanks to a rollback under Trump's USDA of the Obama-era rules, school lunches suck like they used to, before Michelle Obama's reforms made them differently bad.

Back in Tennessee, middle schooler Madison Smith has become part of the solution to the problem of bug-infested school food. Her mom, Brandy Shubert, told the Associated Press that she's packing Madison's lunch instead of having her eat school food. Other parents in Madisonville say they'll do the same.

They're joining millions of kids and parents (and entire school systems) who've fled the program in recent years. They're doing something—opting out—that I've long urged. The USDA's school lunch program seems designed only to ensure that student exodus from the program will continue to grow.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/TNS/Newscom

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...she's packing Madison's lunch instead of having her eat school food.

    There better not be a voucher system in place to allow this!

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I bet she's packing racist white bread and white milk.

  • CDRSchafer||

    White bread, mayonaisse, white cheese and white meat turkey. Whtie milk and white oreos.

  • General_Tso||

    This is a peanut-free zone! Step away from the lunchbox!

  • Inigo Montoya||

    Hey, in many parts of Western Europe, a balanced breakfast consists of a freshly made flaky croissant and a really good strong espresso. They still manage to survive.

    I have to wonder about the quality of the food in these schools. For example, this cheese dipping sauce for the break sticks: is it real cheese or some horrible processed cheese food sauce?

  • General_Tso||

    I'd suggest the Ripple Blanc, '18. Served in a paper bag, in the alley out back.

  • SchillMcGuffin||

    Ripple's a noir, you philistine!

  • Huh18?||

    How gauche.

  • In Time Of War||

    Listen here, you surrender-eating cheese-monkeys, if you're not drinking a 42 of Steel Reserve (yes, 42 ounces, 40's are for lightweights) you have no taste, style or sophistication.

  • Rich||

    students and parents are reporting bug-infested lunches

    That's outrageous! Bureaucratic busybodies won't allow even a *meal* in private!

  • Naaman Brown||

    NSA out of our schools, now.

  • LarryA||

    "But bugs are protein! Bugs in school lunches are a feature, not a...well..."

  • Sevo||

    When I was a mere yute, there was a spirited debate among the kids regarding the garbage truck:
    Was it picking up, or delivering?

  • geo1113||

    On 'Nakes and Afraid', bugs are a form of nourishment.

  • wagnert in atlanta||

    They've always been bad. When I was in grade school, back during the Truman administration, our lunch ladies specialized in "goulash" -- hamburger, chopped tomatoes and elbow macaroni boiled into submission and served in the big section of our trays. I get reminiscent heartburn just thinking about it.

  • SchillMcGuffin||

    In grade school in the mid-'70s, I remember "pizza" being served that was half a hamburger bun, topped with a few slices of Velveeta and a blob of what looked like ketchup, though it may have been some form of marinara.

    I bag lunched all the way through high school.

  • vek||

    We had Pizza Bread, which was something of the same sort. Sometimes it was cheese only, but SOMETIMES they tossed on like 2 thin slices of pepperoni! That shit was THE BOMB yo!

  • John's broseph||

    "The number of students paying full price for school lunches today—now 8.8 million— is at its lowest point in recorded history."

    I imagine a majority of that is due to our ever expanding welfare state and legions of poor children. I have a family member who works for a school district in the Midwest and 98% of the kids receive free or nearly free lunch.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Pretty sure you're correct. In my local district you don't have to provide income proof to get free lunch. The higher low income stats they can show the more government cash they get.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Pretty sure you're correct. In my local district you don't have to provide income proof to get free lunch. The higher low income stats they can show the more government cash they get.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Pretty sure you're correct. In my local district you don't have to provide income proof to get free lunch. The higher low income stats they can show the more government cash they get.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Pretty sure you're correct. In my local district you don't have to provide income proof to get free lunch. The higher low income stats they can show the more government cash they get.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Pretty sure you're correct. In my local district you don't have to provide income proof to get free lunch. The higher low income stats they can show the more government cash they get.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Pretty sure you're correct. In my local district you don't have to provide income proof to get free lunch. The higher low income stats they can show the more government cash they get.

  • Wizard4169||

    Let them eat squirrels!

  • vek||

    There seem to be plenty enough around...

  • Paloma||

    All the kids in Puerto Rican public schools are provided with free breakfast and lunch. They don't have school buses though.

  • I'm Not Sure||

    "These parents are hardly the only ones angry about school lunches. In Greenfield, Indiana, reports indicate parents "are upset after they say their children were served two breadsticks as their main entrée for lunch this week.""

    Packing a lunch for their kids is out of the question, then?

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Mr. Linnekin appears to disregard the children who lack sound parents. His lack of perspective may be understandable, especially if he had responsible parents and a lack of empathy, but it is difficult to square with a role of offering pointers on school lunch programs.

    On the other hand, this is a man who refers to himeself as a "scholar" and "expert."

  • Sevo||

    Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland|9.29.18 @ 12:26PM|#
    "...On the other hand, this is a man who refers to himeself as a "scholar" and "expert.""

    Now that's FUNNY coming from a egomaniac like you.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    I do not contend that I am smart. I observe that guys like you are dumb.

  • vek||

    Well, you should definitely not contend that... Because it's clearly not true.

  • JonFrum||

    Why is Reason allowing some lawyer/author to pimp his book and issue? I hope he paid them for the space.

    When I was in grade school, all that was provided for lunch was milk - we brought sandwiches with us and ate at our desks. And we actually learned to read and write.

  • Huh18?||

    #metooateatdeskwith2cent milkcarton

  • Agammamon||

    Unless you're a hundred plus years old, that's not true. Well the milk thing might be - but that would have been something only your school did.

    Its not like schools suddenly became bad in the last 20 years. They've been bad for longer than any of us have been alive. I sure as fuck didn't learn to read and write on anything other than the most basic level *in school*.

  • Juggernaut||

    They should allow these kids to grow their own food and slaughter their own raised livestock to supplement the menu. The kids should also take more control over the meal preparation. Maybe devote 30 minutes of organized no nonsense food prep before lunch. The schools should go off the grid as much as possible. Maybe have kids riding bikes to generate the electricity.

  • xgxgxgxfsfsfwttwts||

    This articles argues that USDA minimum standards lead to insufficient school meals. (Not that the USDA requires that meals be horrible). Obviously people understand when they are serving horrible food and are doing it for their own reasons, not because it is a USDA mandate. There is no logical reason to think removing any minimal standards will improve this situation. The logical solution is to increase standards if what you want is better food for school children. If you just hate government altogether and don't care if kids have had something to eat when they are trying to learn, then go ahead and kill the regulations. But don't make believe this is to help kids eat better.

    If Mom and Dad are on the ball, sure they'll pack a nice lunch. (My parents did, although sometimes I wanted the steamed hamburgers and limp fries anyhow.) This program is for kids who have parents who are unable or uninterested in feeding their kids well. It is not the kid's fault they are in this position, and lack of food interferes with learning. So it is sensible and cost-efficient to feed kids so they will be able to hold their own as adults and not be a burden on society.

  • Huh18?||

    Very well put. Too bad most on this site will not see the wisdom of the program. The people who trip over dollars to save dimes.

  • Agammamon||

    There is no logical reason to think removing any minimal standards will improve this situation. The logical solution is to increase standards if what you want is better food for school children.

    I'm pretty sure bugs in your granola doesn't meet USDA 'minimum standards'.

    So, if they're not meeting the minimum standards, how does 'logic suggest' that raising the standards schools are ignoring will increase the quality of school food?

  • Sevo||

    "...If you just hate government altogether and don't care if kids have had something to eat when they are trying to learn,..."
    Do lefties ever argue honestly?

    "So it is sensible and cost-efficient to feed kids so they will be able to hold their own as adults and not be a burden on society."
    Your optimism is noted. And laughed at.

  • xgxgxgxfsfsfwttwts||

    I am not a lefty particularly. I am intelligent enough to address arguments on their merits. Speaking of:

    Where is the honesty in your arguments? Name calling and ridicule are not honest argumentation, so you lose by your own standards.

  • LarryA||

    There is no logical reason to think removing any minimal standards will improve this situation. The logical solution is to increase standards if what you want is better food for school children.

    Or you can eliminate federal standards, and federal funding. Then caring parents can go to the school board and say, "You can't hide behind D.C. any more. Our taxes pay for the lunches, so Choice 1: Tell your "nutritional expert" to write menus for good food the kids like. Choice 2: Appoint us the Food Committee and adopt the menus we write for good food the kids like. Choice 3: The school board we replace you with will get Choice 1 and 2."

  • xgxgxgxfsfsfwttwts||

    You could go to the school board now. The USDA does not require bad lunches. It is just easier to post on the internet than make the effort to deal with the school board.

  • SchillMcGuffin||

    The problem with pointing out bugs in the food as a problem with the school lunch program is that to most non-libertarians that looks like a problem that calls for more money and regulation. Likewise the ridiculous "dipping sauce can be protein" situation. The Obama "reforms" were a somewhat better illustration in that most reporting focused on how students rejected the Federally-mandated menu, but this still comes down to the conflict between our recognizing how statist solutions are obstructive, unresponsive, and wasteful, and the attitude that Great Minds can solve our problems if only they have enough money to wallow in.

  • Deep Lurker||

    Not just school lunches, but school breakfasts, with school officials greedy for money and control, and devious about manipulating school policies to get it.

    "No, schools are doing that independently to get more free lunch bribes from the feds. They move breakfast to class time in order to prevent families from eating at home and skipping school breakfast. They place restrictions on what foods kids may bring to school to move it more in line with the government-approved diet. They penalize kids who bring a bag lunch instead of eating the school lunch."

    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=5030#comment-408481

  • Agammamon||

    They move breakfast to class time in order to prevent families from eating at home and skipping school breakfast.

    I don't believe so.

    1. Growing up my school time started at 0730 - and I still was able to find time to eat breakfast at home before leaving for school.

    2. My nephew's school (jr high and now high school in Phoenix) starts at like 9 in the morning or something ridiculous.

  • Jerryskids||

    Two words for better lunches - Little Caesars. Cheap, nutritious, kids love pizza.

  • Longtobefree||

    Back when the constitution was the supreme law of the land, we just left the school campus and walked downtown and ate at a restaurant. For reference, this was when high school was grades eight to twelve.

  • ||

    "Mrs. Obama's reforms, the new and improved lunches developed under her watch featured such nutritious lunches as whole grain pepperoni pizza, hot dogs with tater tots, and whole grain chicken nuggets with blueberry bread."

    Lol. Pathetic.

    Wanna what our lunches consisted of Michelle? I went to a predominantly Italian school so:

    -Veal/chicken cutlet sandwich which sometimes came with provolone or rapini or marinated eggplant or some other marinated delicacy.

    - Meatball or eggplant/chicken/veal parmigiana sandwich - usually on Mondays because leftovers.

    -Pasta for those of us who had the patience to use a thermos. But sometimes we just ate cold lasagne/pasta. Because cold pasta is under rated.

    -Awesome Cold cut/sausage sandwiches hoagie style. Generally with the endless choice of cheese, dressing, romaine/arugala and tomato - sometimes from gardens be it from a grandparent, neighbour or parent.

    -Fruit. Always fruit.Figs, clementines whatever was in season.

    -Desert. While we all had the usual pudding, Jello and so on, there was always a 'torta della nonna or mamma'.

    -That's just off the top of my head. It was deeper and more colorful than that but man it was a spectacle.

    You can blame Trump but he's not going around telling people how they should eat.

    M'kay Michelle?

    Now go stuff Barry's face with a cheeseburger while he goes around yapping taking credit for shit he ain't done.

  • loki||

    School food has always been awful. My parents were terrible cooks as well. As a result I taught myself how to cook and became pretty damn good at it. Bad food teaches self reliance.

  • Live Free Or Diet||

    My parents were good cooks, but barbecue (2 hours north of North Carolina) was expensive and mediocre at best, so I learned to make my own, then added other styles as I learned from my travels.
    The big push for learning to cook came from my wife having a year with a long commute, so I made dinner every weeknight, and discovered I loved it.

  • Live Free Or Diet||

    "[A]ccording to USDA requirements, even the least appetizing meals seem to fit their standards,"

    No, in fact it required they be as unappetizing as possible. No salt, no spicing, and very low fat. IOW, leave out nearly every aspect of flavor.

  • Texasmotiv||

    This is just another data point that supports my theory that public school is closer to prison than it is to anything else.

  • Kay Faibe||

    Why does the school have to feed kids? If people are receiving food stamps, surely they can pack a child's lunch. I don't believe institution food is ever particularly nutritious.

  • Verbum Vincet||

    It's 'jibe' (to agree with), not 'jive' (coined in the '20s and broadly meaning "untrustworthy.") Now that that's out of the way, I'll be the first to agree that most government schools suck. The entire premise is flawed. Still, these sound like First-world problems to me. Is it really that hard to pack a PBJ and chips, or is that combo deemded offensive or socially unjust these days? These kids just need to show some ingenuity - I made a lot of money selling the Boar's Head turkey sandwiches my Mom made me and just ate the free saltines from the condiment area. 3 hours later, I was home and could eat anything I wanted.

  • Echospinner||

    Did mom know you sold the sandwiches?

  • Hank Phillips||

    I traded my PBJ for these icky rice rolls in tea leaves my Japanese classmate's mom packed, and regretted that move. Even their chips were these glazed-looking things that smelt like imitation squid flavoring and tasted worse than even that. Barter is not the ideal economy.

  • Oli||

    School lunch sounds pretty socialistic to me, is it common in the US? In my high school in Germany, we walked to the supermarket or Döner bar half a mile away and bought our lunch there. Or we just brought our own food.

  • Echospinner||

    It is socialistic I suppose. The whole concept of public education is.

    There is a history to this but basically so long as there has been public education it has been noted that some children did not have adequate food. So the argument goes that I cannot be expected to teach your children geometry if they did not eat, which does pass the common sense sniff test.

    As socialism goes it is not a big concern for me. The expense is small compared to the education budget. My experience growing up was there was more than enough food, perhaps not as good as mom could make, but corn dog day was decent. Lot of sloppy joes, don't know what they eat now.

    Funny, I remember from high school that the jocks and body builders loved the cafeteria. They would load up.

    Business, say you have manufacturing or corporate offices, food is always a consideration since people need to eat. You can have nearby places or on site contracts for that but you still need food in the plan.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Whadda they want? egg in their beer?

  • Flinch||

    Same old thing: good meat and vegetables go out the back door/home to the families of those who work the school, and the kids get the leftovers. Literally tons of food get stolen every month under this program, which is just symptom of a greater problem: the federal government has devolved into a clearinghouse for fraud.

  • snowhawk||

    I worked at a Community Center in So Cal in an area made up of 86% illegal. Left over school food was brought to the Center daily to be given to the poor (Illegal). I noticed a scheme of theft going on which also included food stuffs brought in for the monthly food handouts to seniors and the general public. Two of the hierarchy at the center were running the food to LA and selling it. Trying to get someone to listen to my claims was next to impossible. It was as if they all knew and wouldn't stop it.

  • CDRSchafer||

    I do my best to pack a good lunch for my children but it's a slog especially since kids are picky which is as annoying as hell. Especially since one is a budding gourmet (plain white bread and kraft cheese are not good enough, apparently we need to shop at the boulangerie).

    Some rare days I saw the hell with it and they get cheetos, fritos and doritos. The three toed lunch.

  • snowhawk||

    Why'd you bother having children?

  • Trollificus||

    Not, apparently, to cater to their tastes in a manner braggable to the other moms. YMMV.

    My folks gave me money for school lunches,but found out I was spending it on penny candy. There followed years worth of bland, unmarketable sandwich/chip combos. (though I did come to love pb&j w/ barbeque chips)

  • operagost||

    I'm sure the government will rectify this at some point by banning bag lunches and forcing them to eat the school food-- kind of how families who send their kids to private school are still forced to pay tuition while their tax money pays for decrepit public schools.

  • snowhawk||

    When someone else is preparing your food your never going to get your money's worth. Simple as that.

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