Sneakers squeak across the linoleum as students pluck plastic serving trays from their stacks. Metal spoons ladle out portions of beef teriyaki, chicken fajitas, or fish sticks, all of which are approved school lunches in the U.S. under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. When schools reopen, an estimated 30 million students will usher into cafeterias across the country to receive free or low-cost meals provided by the National School Lunch Program. In 2019, New York City made a significant push to improve school fare for the sake of student health and the environment—but did the city go far enough?
NYC public school students are now eating less meat. In September of 2019, the New York City Council passed Resolution 238, which prohibits processed meat products—including bacon, ham, hot dogs, and sausage—from being served in the city’s public schools. This ban piggybacks on the successful citywide launch of Meatless Mondays, an eco-friendly initiative that provides students with all-vegetarian school menus once each week. Resolution 238, despite banning only processed meats, is hailed as a victory by public health officials, vegans, environmentalists, and animal rights activists alike, due to the harm that these foods inflict on human and nonhuman animals and the environment.
One of the main arguments used to support Resolution 238 is that processed meats are classified as Group 1 carcinogens, the same health hazard classification as cigarettes. Evidence suggests that processed meats cause colorectal cancer. Similarly, red meat—which remains on NYC school menus—is classified as a Group 2A carcinogen, indicating that its consumption likely causes cancer. Red meat consumption is linked with the development of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancers. But while processed meat and red meat are both classified as carcinogenic, Resolution 238 bans only processed meat.
Resolution 238 limits students’ exposure to a category of harmful meat products but does not address the lack of fresh produce in students’ diets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables is insufficient. For people of all ages, plant-based diets prove effective in combating cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Despite the deficiency of fruits and vegetables in children’s diets and the health benefits of eating plant-based foods, the USDA spent $656 million dollars procuring meat products for schools in the 2017-18 school year, compared with just $432 million and $206 million, respectively, to supply fruits and vegetables.
A second argument used to support Resolution 238 is that meat production is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that drastic cuts to GHGE are needed by 2030 to prevent catastrophic global warming scenarios. Animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of global human-induced GHGE, a contribution larger than that of the entire transportation sector. A study published earlier this year underscores the significant impact of food choices on GHGE, demonstrating that a 50 percent reduction in animal product consumption could reduce diet-related GHGE by 35 percent. Meat production of all kinds, not just that of processed meat, is accelerating GHGE and warming the planet.
Meat production’s outsized impacts on land use, deforestation, water pollution, and biodiversity are additional reasons used by proponents to support Resolution 238. Seventy-seven percent of the world’s habitable land is currently being used to feed and raise livestock. Poor management of agricultural waste allows pathogens, hormones, antibiotics, and hazardous chemicals found in animal manure to leach into surface and ground waters, making animal agriculture the leading cause of water pollution globally. Additionally, a 2019 U.N. Report finds that a million animal species are currently at risk of extinction. This decline in biodiversity is due, in large part, to extensive land clearing practices like the deforestation currently underway in the Amazon. Complex ecological issues such as these cannot be resolved by only eliminating processed meat from school menus.
Perhaps surprisingly, the inhumane treatment of animals was not used as rationale to support Resolution 238. Although the ban directly targets animal consumption, the word “animal” does not appear in the resolution’s written defense. Farmed animals are sentient creatures capable of feeling and responding to pain, yet each year in the U.S., nine billion farmed animals are slaughtered for food; 99 percent of these animals are reared on factory farms. Undercover investigations routinely show that factory-farmed animals are raised in conditions so unhygienic that sustained antibiotic administration is necessary to keep the animals alive. Sick animals confined en masse at high densities can easily become hotbeds for emerging infectious diseases, including global pandemics. Animals on factory farms, before their premature deaths, are systematically mutilated to prevent the harmful behaviors that occur as a result of chronic confinement and stress. Many farmed animals are slaughtered while conscious due to the ineffectiveness of high-speed processing operations. All industrial meat production—not just processed meat production—causes animal suffering and endangers public health.
While Meatless Mondays and Resolution 238 undoubtedly constitute progress, further action is necessary to sufficiently enrich student health, reduce GHGE, and curb the environmental damages caused by animal agriculture. The arguments made for passing Resolution 238 apply not just to processed meats, but rather to all meat. Both the health benefits of plant-based foods and the pervasive inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms further warrant schools eliminating meat. As a leader in school meal plan reform, NYC should pioneer removing all meat from its public school menus.