Just How Dangerous are the Processed Meats Served in School Lunches?

Just How Dangerous are the Processed Meats Served in School Lunches?

Should children be allowed to eat processed meats even with the known health risks?

Often called “lunch meats” (which may be why they’re prolific in the U.S. school lunch system), according to the watchdog group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, processed meats are a big problem, especially for children who eat school lunches.

According to a recent study published by the PCRM (“Who’s Making Money from Overweight Kids?”), the USDA is paying big money to feed potentially harmful meat and dairy products to school children. The report cites that more than $500 million in 2013 went to 62 major meat and dairy producers.

“Six of those companies, including chicken producer Pilgrim’s Pride and American Beefpackers, received the bulk of the funds, roughly $331m,” reports ” target=”_blank”>The Guardian. “While some of these companies sell unprocessed meat products, like chicken breasts or cuts of steak […] many also produce packaged, pre-prepared meat and dairy foods containing various additives to add color, preserve freshness or enhance flavor, some of which have been linked to behavioral problems and weight gain.” And this, the PCRM report says, may not be the best situation for our nation’s children.

“The USDA buys up products from these corporations and puts them into schools,” said Susan Levin, director of nutrition education at PCRM. “It’s not necessarily based on nutrition, it’s based on economics.”

According to the CDC, more than 17 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 19 are clinically obese—a number up from just 5.6 percent in the 1970s.

And the PCRM says school children should always be given a choice of a healthier meal option, such as veggie burgers or bean burritos. The group, which promotes vegetarian and vegan diets, says that at least a sizable chunk of the money going to big meat and dairy producers could go toward increasing the presence of fruits and vegetables on school menus, “which tend to contain less fat, sodium and calories, and that scientists and nutritionists agree have healthier outcomes,” the Guardian explains.

“Including a daily plant-based entrée … not only addresses inadequate consumption of healthful plant-based foods and helps form healthier eating habits, but can also lower children’s fat, calorie, sodium, and cholesterol intake by reducing consumption of processed meat and dairy products such as cheesy pizza, sausages and bacon, and fried chicken nuggets,” the report states.

The School Nutrition Association, an organization of more than 55,000 members who manage the country’s school lunch programs, also receives advertising money from many of the major manufacturers under contract with the government for school lunches. The report found at least 20 companies advertise in the SNA monthly magazine. Ads in the magazine featured “junk food like stuffed-crust pepperoni pizza, chicken corn dogs and turkey sausage, egg and cheese-stuffed sandwiches, far outnumbering those for plant-based options like beans, blueberries and sweet potatoes,” the Guardian reports. “Of the 106 ads for ‘unhealthful meat and dairy products’, 23 were full-page ads for pepperoni pizza from national chains Domino’s and Pizza Hut.”

While the SNA maintains that all items featured in ads in the magazine “meet federal standards for healthy school meals,” the PCRM says there’s still a lot of work to be done. “I do think there is more that needs to be done,” says Levin. “You can’t serve chicken nuggets and fries next to three bean chili [and] expect the kids to go for the chili.”

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School cafeteria image via Shutterstock