The Influence of Big Food Companies on School Lunch Menus

In Canada, almost 20% of kids are obese, more than many places. Big food companies and others play a big role in this. They push unhealthy meals in schools, which harms the students’ health.

Since the 1970s, these big companies have controlled what’s on the school menu. They make deals to sell their food and even change the rules to fit their needs. Lobbying efforts have made it easier for schools to offer not-so-healthy foods like French fries and pizza.

Big Food is earning huge profits from school meals, but it’s not good for the students. This shows we need better rules to ensure kids’ health comes first, not the companies’ pockets.

Big Food’s Colonization of School Cafeterias

Since the 1970s, Big Food has taken over more school cafeterias in Canada. They have won contracts to serve 95% of public schools in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). This move has allowed them to better reach the over 30 million children who eat school meals every day.

The Rise of Big Food in School Meal Programs

Big Food companies serve up their popular items in schools. It includes foods like chicken nuggets that are easy to prepare and serve. They also sign deals to heavily promote their brands to students, making their food seem like the cool choice.

Lobbying Efforts to Weaken Nutrition Standards

Big Food’s efforts are not just about selling to schools. They have used their money to influence the government, relaxing nutrition standards for school meals. This has made it easier for schools to offer unhealthy foods, worsening the childhood obesity issue.

Key Statistic


Percentage of public schools in Canada that participate in the NSLP


Amount of public funding redirected from Big Food to local food and farm economies by districts with active farm-to-school programs (2015)

$789 million

Number of Canadian children who consume free, reduced-price, or partially reimbursed meals through school food programs daily

Approximately 30 million

The Economics of School Lunch Programs

Schools in the USDA federal meal programs try to keep their breakfast and lunch running like a not-for-profit business (Gaddis, 2019). It’s hard work. Covid-19 made things even tougher. Now, many of these programs are struggling more than ever.

Reimbursement Rates vs. Actual Costs

The prices for school meals in the 2023-24 school year were:

Meal Type

Median Price

Elementary Lunch


Middle School Lunch


High School Lunch


Elementary Breakfast


Middle School Breakfast


High School Breakfast


The issue is, the federal government doesn’t always cover these costs. So, many schools have to figure out ways to spend less. This can mean offering foods that are cheap but not very healthy.

Cost-Cutting Measures: Cheap, Unhealthy Foods

According to the SNA’s survey, many schools face a challenge with unpaid meal debt. In November 2023, the median outstanding meal debt was over $5,000.

Dealing with these debts, some schools might choose to serve unhealthy, processed foods. They are cheaper. But, it goes against the aim of providing healthy meals in schools. This can make problems like obesity and poor nutrition worse.

Outsourcing to Food Service Management Companies

In Canada, outsourcing food service to companies has sparked debate. Until 1946, it was illegal. School lunch program leaders argued this practice didn’t belong there. They were mostly experts in home economics or dietetics .

The Controversial History of For-Profit Providers

Over time, the story changed. Private companies getting involved in school meals became more accepted. By 2014-15, one in five school districts started outsourcing to food service management companies (FSMCs). People began to think it would save money and run more smoothly. But, some schools ended up losing money due to this change .

The Growth of Outsourcing School Meal Programs

Federal rules have guided the process of letting companies handle school meals. These include 7 CFR § 210.14 for managing resources and 7 CFR § 210.16 for for-profit food service providers. However, going private has its critics. They worry that the move might affect the quality and healthiness of the food served in schools .

The School Lunch Menu Dilemma

Schools in the NSLP face challenges due to big food companies’ influence. They argue school cafeterias aren’t classrooms, so they need different funding. This debate points to broader issues in public education.

The question of feeding students during school hours remains. Should schools, since they require children to attend, provide meals? Or is this duty solely on parents and families, especially for those in need?

This issue shows the difficulty in managing the school lunch menu. Schools must think about students’ needs, their own budgets, and the grip of the processed food industry. Balancing healthy and unhealthy food options poses a continuous challenge for schools.

Efforts to Serve Healthier, Locally Sourced Meals

A national movement is growing to bring scratch cooking and local food to school cafeterias. About 42% of school districts now have programs that connect them directly to local farms. This has led to over $789 million being spent on local food instead of with big food companies. This shift is not only about better meals. It’s also getting students involved in learning where their food comes from.

The Farm-to-School Movement

Getting school food from local sources can help fight food insecurity. It also supports small farms and the local economy. The Covid-19 pandemic showed us the weaknesses in the big global food system. Now, more people want to buy and grow food locally.

Challenges in Breaking Away from Big Food

Changing to scratch cooking and using local sources can be hard. Many schools rely on the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). They find it tough to stop using processed foods. The food industry’s power and money make it hard for schools to choose healthier, local options.

See also  How to Plan a Weeks Worth of School Lunches?

The Processed Food Debate

Nutrition experts worry about adding Lunchables and similar foods to school menus. These items are ultra-processed, made in factories with high-sugar and high-salt contents. They taste good but can lead to obesity and illness. In the last 20 years, obesity-related premature deaths have more than doubled for people aged 35 to 64.

Concerns Over Ultra-Processed Foods

Research links ultra-processed foods to serious health issues. They often contain too much sugar, salt, and additives, making them popular with kids. Childhood obesity is on the rise because of this global issue.

Industry Pushback and Reformulation Efforts

The food industry is trying to improve school meals by changing some products. They want to meet nutritional standards set by the government. However, experts argue these small changes don’t fix the bigger problem of ultra-processed foods.



Percentage of children globally classified as overweight

Almost 1 in 5

Percentage of children anxious about climate change


Potential reduction in individual carbon footprint with a plant-based diet

Up to 75%

Increase in Veganuary participants from 2015 to 2023

600,000 (from 1,000)

Potential nutritional concerns with a vegan diet for children

Deficiencies in protein, calcium, vitamins, and iron

Cost increase for switching to a fully vegan school menu

Higher due to more expensive vegan substitutes

The issue of ultra-processed foods in school lunches shows a tough balance. It pits the food industry and government rules against child health. It’s a big challenge for schools in Canada to find meals that are good for kids, affordable, and easy to serve.

School Lunch Menu Case Study: Lunchables

Choices made in Washington, D.C., affect what’s on your lunch tray at Pembroke Elementary School. Kraft Heinz’s Lunchables are now an option for 30 million kids, thanks to changes. The National School Lunch Program now allows these lunch packs.

Lunchables Meet USDA Nutrition Standards

Now, the Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers and the Extra Cheesy Pizza from Lunchables follow USDA nutrition rules. Even though some experts worry about the food’s nutrition, these Lunchables are okayed. The Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers have 930 mg of sodium in them. That’s almost half of what you should have in a day. The Extra Cheesy Pizza has 700 mg, which is a third of the amount you should eat daily.

Reactions from School Districts and Nutrition Experts

Schools have varied reactions about serving Lunchables for lunch. Some say it’s good because of the meals’ easy prep. But many are worried about the sodium and other ingredients. Nutrition experts fear for kids’ health, linking such foods to problems like obesity. They also found Lunchables have too much lead for California’s standards. This news makes some doubt if they should be on school menus.

The Influence of the Food Industry

Federally subsidized school lunches in Canada show how powerful the food industry is. They have a big say in government decisions. Also, they heavily influence the School Nutrition Association. This group helps set rules for school lunch programs, affecting 50,000 workers.

In many countries, more nutritious school meals are on the rise. These places also have stricter rules on food ads. But in Canada, things are different. Pizza sauce and french fries are accepted as vegetable choices for children. This doesn’t help kids get the healthy food they need. What’s more, Canadian food companies can freely advertise to them.

Food Industry Lobbying and the School Nutrition Association

The School Nutrition Association has been under fire for its tight bonds with the food industry. This group has pushed the government to ease up on food rules for schools. They often support what big food corporations want. As a result, unhealthy choices continue to dominate school lunch menus in the country.

Marketing to Children in Schools

Canadian food companies hold a lot of power over what schools offer to kids. They can advertise to students almost as much as they want. This allows them to market their products directly to kids. It’s a big challenge for those trying to make school meals healthier. The marketing tactics are especially hard on kids from families with lower incomes. It worsens the health gap among kids.

The food industry’s strong influence on school nutrition needs to be addressed. We must push for more openness, responsibility, and a focus on public health goals. Solving this problem needs teamwork. Policymakers, teachers, and health activists should work together. They need to free school food policies from the control of large food companies.

Proposed Changes and Reforms

More and more people are worried about what students eat at school. So, a big movement is growing. It wants to make sure all students eat for free at school. It also wants schools to cook meals from scratch and to buy food from local sources. This is to fight the power of big food companies and make student health a top priority.

Universal Free School Meals

Many now support the idea that all students should get free, healthy meals. They say this can fight hunger, boost school grades, and make students healthier overall. Studies have found that kids do better in school when they eat healthier food. So, making this change could really help students.

Encouraging Scratch Cooking and Local Purchasing

At the same time, more school districts are joining the farm-to-school movement. This movement wants schools to buy food locally and cook from scratch. It’s making big changes by moving money from big food companies to local farms. The most recent count in 2015 showed schools moved $789 million to local food and farms. This move helps regional food systems and makes sure students get fresh, healthy food.

By July 1, 2024, the USDA is introducing new rules for school meals. These rules will let schools prefer food that’s grown, raised, or caught close by. The idea is to support local food systems and cut down on highly-processed food in school meals. This change starts a positive cycle for food production and student health.

See also  Exploring Cultural Diversity in School Lunches: Celebrating Different Cuisines and Preferences




Universal Free School Meals

Providing all students with access to free, nutritious meals at school

Addresses childhood hunger, improves academic performance, and promotes overall student health

Scratch Cooking and Local Purchasing

Redirecting public funding towards local food producers and scratch cooking in school kitchens

Supports regional food systems and provides students with fresh, nutritious meals

USDA’s 2024 Final Rule

Expands geographic preference allowances for locally grown, raised, or caught products in school procurement

Enhances regional food supply chains and increases the use of minimally processed or unprocessed food products in school meals


In the United States, the low standards for federally subsidized school lunches are a big problem. The food industry’s strong influence and lobbying make things worse. This has led to many kids facing obesity issues. But now, more people are working to give all students better, healthier, and local meals for free.

Many people are trying to change the school lunch system. They want to offer more nutritious meals. Research shows that having healthy school lunches can help reduce poverty and improve kids’ education. By making lunch meals better and more available, children are doing better in school.

The food industry’s power is making change hard. Yet, there’s hope with a grassroots effort. This movement supports making food in schools, getting local products, and offering meals to all kids for free. By supporting this work, schools can fight against big companies. They can focus on students’ health and change how we think about food in education.

FAQ Section


What role have big food companies played in school lunch programs?

Since the 1970s, big food companies took over school lunches. They signed big money deals. They pushed their brands and sold heat-and-serve meals in almost all schools tied to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

How have big food companies influenced nutrition standards for school meals?

The food industry has used its money to sway the government. They wanted to lower the nutrition standards for school food. This has led to schools offering more unhealthy choices like French fries and pizza.

What is the impact of Big Food’s influence on school lunch programs?

Big Food’s sway and the weak meal rules in schools have helped cause a big problem. Almost 20% of kids today are obese. This is part of a larger issue around childhood obesity.

How are school districts addressing the issue of unhealthy options in school meals?

A movement to cook from scratch and use local food in cafeterias is growing. Forty-two percent of districts are leading with farm-to-school programs. The goal is to fight Big Food’s power. They aim to offer students meals that are healthier and from local sources.

What are the concerns around ultra-processed foods in school lunches?

Experts are worried about adding ultra-processed foods like Lunchables to the menu. Studies link ultra-processed foods with obesity and disease. This has raised concerns from health professionals.

How has the food industry’s influence extended to the School Nutrition Association?

Food companies’ power is clear through low standards for school lunches in the U.S. The School Nutrition Association faces a heavy influence. It’s influenced because it represents 50,000 workers in school cafeterias.

What reforms are being proposed to address the issues with school lunch programs?

Efforts are underway to fix school lunches. Ideas include making meals free for all students. There’s also a push for more cooking from scratch and using local foods. The goal is to make meals healthier and to fight against Big Food’s control.

Source Links

Latest News

Recent Post

Scroll to Top