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Quality of School Lunches Questioned

By Amy Buffenbarger

The meat being provided to our nation’s students in their lunches may not meet requirements by the fast-food industry, according to a recent investigation.

Those pangs of guilt when biting into a fast-food hamburger are one thing, but who would imagine that burger could be made with higher-quality meat than what our students are getting in school?

A recent USA Today investigation found that the nation’s largest fast-food chains have higher quality and safety standards for the meat they use than what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has for the meat used for the National School Lunch Program, which is served to 31 million students a day.

While the USDA rules for meat sent to schools maintain government safety standards, the government rules have fallen behind the stricter regulations of fast-food chains and other large retailers. Fast-food chains test their meat five to ten times more often than the USDA for bacteria and would reject meat that the USDA deems safe for consumption.

The standards for meat sent to schools and retailers are so disparate that ground beef from a plant with a salmonella outbreak this past August was recalled by retailers, but ground beef from the same plant produced during that outbreak was still shipped to schools.

In addition to meat quality issues, school cafeterias are not being inspected as rigorously required by the Child Nutrition Act. USA Today found that 8,500 schools across the country did not have their kitchens inspected at all in 2008, and another 18,000 schools did not complete the two required yearly inspections.

The USDA is responsible for inspecting every school cafeteria twice a year, but the requirement is difficult to enforce. For starters, the USDA requires that states simply provide the number of schools that have been inspected, but don’t keep record of school names. Also, these cafeteria inspections are not free and the money is not automatically provided to meet the mandate. With resources for schools scares across the country, cafeteria needs are not often a top priority.

These quality control problems for school lunches are not going unnoticed by NEA members.  Education support professionals and educators know the important role nutritious school lunches play in student achievement. “While the lunches may, according to standards, be a balanced lunch, it leaves a lot to be desired as far as the standard applied to the contents of a school lunch," said Bob Munoz, a Nevada educator.



Read the USA Today investigation

Learn about the National School Lunch Program

NEA ESPs talk about the importance of food safety in this NEA Today article