Impact of Federal Commodity Programs on School Meal Nutrition

Thirty million children eat school lunches daily in the United States, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Child Nutrition Commodity Program plays a major role in what is served on their plates. Too often, because of what school districts order from the program or how commodity foods are processed before reaching students, these meals fall far short of federal nutrition guidelines.

This policy highlight details findings from an analysis of how the Child Nutrition Commodity Program impacts the nutritional quality of school breakfasts and lunches. Though it focuses primarily on practices in California, its findings include recommendations of relevance to other states and the nation. Healthy Eating Research funded the analysis, which was conducted by California Food Policy Advocates and Samuels & Associates.

Key Findings:

  • Nationally, more than 50 percent of commodity foods are sent to processors (i.e., fat, sugar, and sodium added to foods) before they are sent to schools. Processing is not regulated for nutritional quality and often involves adding fat, sugar and sodium to commodity products.
  • California school districts used more than 82 percent of their commodity funds to purchase meat and cheese. They spent only 13 percent of their funds on fruits and vegetables.
  • There is little alignment between what California schools bought in federal commodity foods and what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that people eat daily.

Dietary Guidelines for Americans should be reflected in School Meal Initiative Standards, and schools should have to meet them. Efforts to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables and decrease the amount of meats and processed foods purchased for school meals would contribute to providing students with much healthier foods.