USDA Thwarts Efforts to Improve School Lunch Programs

Imagine 3,000 dead chickens piled in a truck after a company failed to protect them from freezing conditions during transport, or watching someone at a slaughterhouse place the heads (instead of the legs) of live birds into shackles and intentionally pull on their bodies to decapitate them. Picture someone recklessly driving over and killing birds loose on the ground, or countless birds drowning in a tank of scalding water. Now imagine chicken products from these animals on the lunch trays of school children.

AWI has learned that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides government-subsidized school lunches, is supplied by companies with the worst animal handling records—including ones that have been cited for the egregious acts mentioned above. This is allowed because the US Department of Agriculture has not set animal welfare standards for companies supplying the program with poultry—the primary meat provided to schools—even though it has program standards for the handling of cattle, hogs, and sheep.

Elsewhere, efforts are being made to actually improve school lunch meals. The Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) is encouraging school districts to offer food that is not only nutritious, but also produced in a manner that incorporates high animal welfare, safe and fair working conditions, environmental sustainability, and local sourcing. AWI has aided these efforts by helping the GFPP write the latest version of its animal welfare standards. (AWI has also joined other organizations in the “Good Food Now!” campaign to encourage Darden Restaurants, the largest restaurant conglomerate in the United States, to adopt standards similar to those of the GFPP—see AWI Quarterly, summer 2016.)

The GFPP has already made significant progress. The Los Angeles and San Francisco Unified School Districts, which together serve 134 million meals a year, adopted the program’s standards, and efforts are underway for GFPP standards to take root in Chicago, New York City, Oakland, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Cincinnati, Austin, and Madison.

Unfortunately, the GFPP’s efforts to raise standards are thwarted by the USDA’s procurement practices for the NSLP. At present, all Los Angeles and San Francisco Unified students—those who participate in the NSLP and those who do not—are consuming poultry products that do not align with the GFPP standards, because poultry procured for the NSLP is mixed with products meeting higher standards.

AWI has been urging the USDA to incorporate bird welfare standards into the NSLP, but the USDA questions the food safety benefit of humane handling standards—despite decades of scientific research demonstrating a link between how animals are treated and subsequent meat quality. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has even noted the importance of humane treatment, stating that animal cruelty increases the risk of adulterated food products. However, the USDA continues to serve meat to school kids from suppliers who treat animals poorly.

The USDA will continue to frustrate the GFPP’s laudable efforts to improve school lunch menus unless it sets bird welfare standards and prohibits companies who treat animals with unimaginable cruelty from participating in the National School Lunch Program.