Companies getting fat off profits from unhealthy school lunch ads

© Paul J. Richards
School lunches across the US have become a big business, and companies are profiting off serving American kids unhealthy meals. Now they’re spending big bucks to lobby Congress to keep obesity-causing ingredients on cafeteria menus.

Lawmakers are set to update funding for National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Programs via the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 2010, which will expire on September 30. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers these programs, which contain fruit and vegetable requirements and set limits on saturated fat.

The school meal programs allowed the USDA to buy $500 million worth of food from 62 meat and dairy producers. Over half of that money ‒ a combined $331 million ‒ went to just six companies, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

The schools then purchase the meat and dairy items from the federal government at much cheaper rates than if they were to buy them directly from the businesses, Mother Jones reported.

© School Nutrition magazine

Thanks to the nutritional regulations laid out in 2010 update to the Child Nutrition Act and a push by First Lady Michelle Obama to make school lunches healthier, many companies have retooled their ingredients to meet the minimum federal requirements. But that’s not preventing companies from spending big bucks to advertise unhealthy foods to those school and school district employees in charge of purchasing ingredients.

The Physicians Committee analyzed the ads found in each of the School Nutrition Association’s magazine issues from 2014, to see how many faux-healthy foods companies were marketing. The organization is comprised of 55,000 school food service members.

The analysis found that ads for healthy foods like pasta, beans blueberries and pasta were far outnumbered by those for junk food.

“Of 106 ads for unhealthful meat and dairy products, 23 were full-page ads for Domino’s or Pizza Hut pepperoni pizza,” the Physicians Committee wrote. “Pizza is the number-two source of calories for children and adolescents ages 2-18, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It is also the second-leading source of saturated fat and the third-leading source of sodium.”

Other ads for unhealthy foods targeting school-food purchasers included chicken nuggets and other processed meats, macaroni and cheese and cheese-filled breadsticks. The promotional material was paid for by 20 different companies, including the American Egg Board, ConAgra Foodservice, General Mills Food Service, Jennie-O Turkey Store LLC, Land O’Lakes Foodservice, Sara Lee Foodservice and Tyson Foods.