We’ve been told we are what we eat ever since we were young. Unfortunately, for many, access to fresh, healthy food does not come easy. Perhaps our local grocery store was not adequately stocked with affordable healthy food. Or, as was the case for many of us who relied on the federal Free and Reduced Price Meals (FRP) program to feed our growing minds and bodies, the school menu was laden with questionable pizza and a daily sandwich made with different cold cuts. Well, it seems that no matter what school you attend, healthy food is hard to come by. Two public school districts in California are currently under fire from thePhysicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for plant-based nutrition, for their decision to include processed meats on school lunch menus.
Earlier this week, PCRM filed a lawsuit against both the Poway Unified School District and the Los Angeles School District on the grounds that there is a“recognized association between eating processed meats … and developing cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.” Items on the menu include a “turkey pastrami croissandwich with cheese,” turkey hot dogs, sausages, and more. PCRM argues that this violates California’s Education Code, which requires schools to provide students with “highest quality” food that offers “greatest nutritional value possible.” Several studies, including those published in Journal of Health Economics, Journal of School Health, and Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, have shown that healthier school lunches lead to better classroom environments and improved academic performance. Banning processed meats and adding more plant-based foods to the menu would greatly benefit the six million students currently enrolled in the California public school system, especially considering over half of the student body is enrolled in FRP school meals.
The North American Meat Institute, a meat industry trade association, however, stands by the current school lunches and labeled the lawsuit “a publicity stunt.” According to spokesperson Janet Riley, “we stand by the nutrition benefits that meat — both fresh and processed — provide for growing children.” However, both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Servies (HHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommend eating less meat and more plants for good health. Even MyPlate, a guide to balancing nutrition formerly known as the food pyramids, not only recommends that vegetables and grains make up most of our diet, it also does not specify what kind of protein should be consumed. On the flipside, the World Health Organization has linked the consumption of processed meats like bacon and cold cuts to cancer. Not to mention, if we want these children to grow up in a world that is not wrought with pollution, droughts, and food shortages,reducing meat consumption in favor of plant-based options is crucial.
We applaud PCRM for standing up for children’s rights to healthy food. But if you’re not in California, what can you do about school lunches in your state? As the lawsuit between PCRM and the two involved California school districts takes off, Senator Nancy Skinner seeks to introduce establish the California Grown Fresh School Meals Grant Program, which would require public schools to include more fresh, local produce on California public school menus. You can present this bill to your state representatives as an example of the change you want to see. When it comes to the health our children, and ourselves, access to healthy food should be a right — not something that must be fought for.