The Most Expensive Free Lunch

Happy National School Lunch Program Week! This federally assisted meal program, administered by the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service since 1946, has served more than 187 billion lunches to students across America. In theory, it’s an efficient and compassionate way of serving food to those most in need and deserving of nourishment. The average American child spends nearly 12,000 hours in school from kindergarten through 12th grade. Access to healthy food is critical to ensure wellness and academic success. But what exactly are these kids getting for free?

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) serves more meals each day than McDonalds. As you can imagine, the strict regulations imposed by the government are often inefficiently regulated or violated. Federal standards require that no more than 30 percent of meal calories come from total fat and 10 percent from saturated fat when averaged over the school week. According to the most recent School Nutrition Dietary Assessment (SNDA), only one in four elementary schools served lunches that met the standard for fat and one in three met the standard for saturated fat. For high schools, the findings were even worse: 1 in 10 for fat and 1 in 5 for saturated fat.

But let’s not forget to praise the many compliant schools that have worked so hard to creatively meet the standards. Since the nutrient standards are allowed to be averaged over an entire week, many schools simply serve high fat cafeteria meals on a few days a week, and balance it out later by serving a low fat one. There’s no fear of lost revenue because on any low fat day, you will likely find an enticing higher fat a la carte item waiting for you outside the cafeteria, which is not part of the NSLP. When I worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District, it was not uncommon for the cafeteria to generate 70% of its total sales from these mobile cart items. Just alternate the location of the fatty foods and your sales will stay afloat, and your nutrition standards will be met.

Of course there are many schools that are determined to do the right thing, and make sure all meals are compliant each and every day. An innovative cafeteria manager at a healthy schools conference I spoke at was quite proud of how she figured out how to do just that. A fellow attendee asked the group how one could serve non-compliant pizza inside the cafeteria. “I know just the trick!” she said. “All I do is add sugar to the pizza dough!” Calories go up; percentage of calories from fat goes down. Problem solved.

I initially thought the shortcomings of school lunches stemmed from the NSLP being underfunded, but our federal government already reimburses public schools $2.57 for each free meal. For American taxpayers, that’s a hefty price tag of 8.7 billion dollars per year. Money doesn’t seem to be the issue. Instead it appears to be the mismanagement of the program and lack of oversight that stems from favoritism at the highest level. The beef and dairy industries have managed to use the NSLP program as a dumping ground for surplus items that the government agrees to buy. Each year the USDA purchases hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-fat and cholesterol products from the American agribusiness and a negligible amount of fresh fruit and vegetables. In 2005, for example, the USDA allocated almost 60 percent of food program procurement expenditures to meat, dairy, and egg products, while giving less than 5 percent to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. This uneven balance is reflected on the commodities list that school cafeteria managers order from each month. Although there are many local farms and healthy vendors offering their foods to schools at competitive prices, the odds of getting into the public school system are not good. Even schools with bountiful organic gardens, such as Venice High School, can’t offer their student grown produce to the cafeteria. Less than 3% of public schools have operational “farm-to-school” programs.

So the next time you hear about a school lunch program being touted as incredibly healthy, dig a little deeper. Chances are it’s at a private school that isn’t even part of the National School Lunch Program. And if it’s at a public school, it’s likely a program that’s filled with smoke and mirrors. The colorful salad bars and healthy entrees you hear of are either hidden away from the primary points of sale, seldom offered, or publicity stunts that fade as soon as the confetti hits the floor. Most school lunches are unhealthy and far from free in any sense of the word. The NSLP program is expensive and children who are continually fed highly processed, cholesterol laden, fat filled meals face health care costs that make the billions we pay for the “free” lunch look like pocket change.

Jacqueline Domac is a Health Policy Consultant and a LAUSD Teacher of the Year. She has been featured in TIME Magazine, CNN and the CBS Evening News for her work on school food policy. For more information, please visit

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