Millions upon millions of pounds of meat are served every week by people who must balance costs against appetites, limited serving time, and demanding parents – by school nutritionists, that is. To date, school lunch programs have benefitted from USDA’s commodity purchasing programs, which makes foods such as ground beef and cheese available to public schools as cheaply as possible. But things are changing in the lunch room.

"It’s a very dynamic time for school nutritionists," Alexis Steines, public affairs associate for the School Nutrition Association, told as the group meets in Las Vegas this week for its annual convention. "There’s a lot of stress being placed on nutrition and healthy eating, plus the whole emphasis on buying local."

She emphasized: "Meat’s not going away. But increasingly what we’re seeing is leaner cuts of meat being offered." Meat and cheese are still purchased by nine out of 10 public school-lunch programs, according to an SNA survey conducted this year. "Ground beef is still a big item. Its versatility still works really well for lunch programs," Steines said, adding that school nutrition directors still have "absolutely a great relationship with USDA."

In recent years, some food activists have complained that the meals served in schools are too fatty and sweet, contributing to childhood obesity, and that USDA uses the school lunch program as a dumping ground for over-abundant commodities, including meat. Moreover, serving prepared or processed foods in schools doesn’t help children learn about how foods are grown and where they come from, some activitists note.

Partly as a result, an increasing number of programs are focusing on locally grown foods, including meat. According to SNA’s survey, 34 percent of school-lunch programs now buy at least some foods from local growers. Little meat is bought this way, however, in part because of availability and in part because local processors may not be clued in to their local school eating programs.

"The best thing local processors can do is talk directly to the school nutrition directors," Steines advised. "They don’t have to go through USDA. The directors can buy directly themselves."

She said that besides the growing emphasis on locally produced foods, other trends in school-lunch menus include greater emphasis on ethnic cuisines and growing availability of breakfast and after-school meals. "In St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, one school district had students submit recipes. There’s a large Somali population in St. Paul, and the nutrition director there was able to incorporate some of the recipes submitted by the Somali students into the program. It was a big hit."

SNA is also committed to fighting childhood obesity, she said, and to that end, the association supports legislation proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Lynne Woolsey (D-Calif.) that would allow USDA to create standards for foods available in vending machines on school grounds, which some consumer activists have complained are nothing more than uncontrolled dispensaries for sugar and fat. "We definitely want tougher standards," Steines told, though the association does not support a ban on vending machines in schools.

"The bottom line is that the lunch served in school by our members is, for many, many children, still the best meal they will receive all day," she commented.