As parents settle their kids into a new school year, they might feel good about allowing their children to participate in the new and “improved” school-lunch program. After all, $4.5 billion was pumped into the program a few years ago, thanks to the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 — a bill personally shepherded through Congress by first lady Michelle Obama.

Ostensibly, this new funding, as well as strict new regulations on what food schools can serve, ensures the delivery of healthier meals to the 31 million kids who daily participate in the program. The First Lady often bragged that the bill would end the days of soggy pizza, spongy chicken nuggets, mystery-meat sandwiches, and gray vegetables. This is a new era in school feeding; we will now see lunch trays filled with fresh fruit, leafy greens, lean meats, and whole grain breads.

Indeed what’s served in the school cafeteria is changing, but in ways you might not expect. It turns out that this year some schools will actually be serving less healthy, higher fat beef while other schools will pay higher prices for leaner beef. Parents who hear their kids got sirloin for lunch should ask themselves if this was really the best use of the school’s money, or if that money might have been better spent teaching kids to read and write, or for a music program or a physical-education class.

Keep in mind that the rush to dedicate more dollars to beef was fueled by a series of factually inaccurate news reports that sent Americans into a full panic about meat production in this country. If you don’t remember the incident, maybe these two words will jog your memory: “pink slime”.

In March 2012, ABC News ran a series by reporter Jim Avila on “pink slime,” also known as “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB). Avila’s reporting was standard dramatic bluster short on facts featuring fake whistleblowers, unappetizing pictures of the beef product, and the coup-de-grace — false claims of a kickback for a former USDA official by the beef industry. It was a doozy of a story that generated dozens of copycat reports and calls for action from food advocacy organizations and concerned parents nationwide. Demand to end the use of LFTB was swift. Schools began lobbying to purchase LFTB-free beef, grocery chains whipped up marketing strategies, and fast food and other big restaurant chains promised not to use the product. Meanwhile, the beef industry was on the defensive and people were losing their jobs by the thousands.

Last year, nearly 112 million pounds of beef containing LFTB was purchased by the USDA to be sent to schools nationwide. Minus this major purchaser, as well as the purchases from major grocery store and restaurant chains, LFTB plants were forced to shut down and over a thousand workers were laid off in the Midwest.

Was all this really necessary? No. The truth is LFTB is perfectly safe. In fact, even Obama administration appointee Elisabeth Hagan, the USDA’s Undersecretary for Food Safety (who also happens to be a physician and mother), endorsed the product, saying, “LFTB is safe and has been used for a very long time. And adding LFTB to ground beef does not make that ground beef any less safe to consume.”

Another notable voice, Nancy Donley, president and chief spokesperson for food safety nonprofit STOP Foodborne Illness has defended the product. Donley, who tragically lost her six-year old son Alex to E. coli-contaminated ground beef in 1993, is no corporate hack. She’s dedicated her life to food safety and has voiced her concern over the “misinformation swirling around the Internet and TV about lean beef produced by Beef Products, Inc. [a LFTB manufacturer].” She goes on to say:

[BLOVK]#…#I have personally visited their plant and the categorization of calling their product “pink slime:” is completely false and incendiary. Consumers need to understand that this product is meat, period, and that the use of ammonia hydroxide in minute amounts during processing improves the safety of the product and is routinely used throughout the food industry. [BLOCK]

It’s interesting that ABC Reporter Jim Avila failed to interview one of the nation’s foremost experts on food safety for his report. But then, such facts can be a nuisance when trying to cause a panic.

To understand LFTB in layman’s terms, consider how you trim a steak before putting it on the grill. While cutting away the fat, sometimes small pieces of lean meat are removed along with the fat. That’s a waste of perfectly good lean beef. If one were truly frugal, one might retrieve those small pieces of lean beef by further trimming them off the fat scraps, maybe to use in a soup or stew. The production of LFTB really isn’t any different; the lean beef is simply retrieved from larger scraps that have been removed from the meat and then treated with ammonia hydroxide gas to kill bacteria. The final product is 98 percent fat free and bacteria free. While it might not be pretty, the fact is LFTB is a healthy, safe and extremely lean protein source.

The reaction to Avila’s reporting is understandable. Otto von Bismarck had it right when he suggested sausage lovers avoid watching it being made. The same is true of LFTB and meat processing in general. But to suggest this product is dangerous is simply journalistic malpractice (which of course means Avila is sure to enter his work for a journalism prize).

Hagan’s support helped to quell some of the hysterics about LFTB, but she understated the product’s usefulness — because not only is the product safe and a healthy source of lean protein, it can be used to lower the fat content in lower-priced, higher-fat beef (the very beef often purchased by schools). By incorporating LFTB into a higher fat (say, 30 percent fat content) grind, the final product’s fat content is lowered without hiking the price. This is especially important today when the country is facing a major drought which has led to record high prices on beef and other food products.

Following Avila’s series, the USDA announced it would allow school districts to decide whether to purchase beef that does not contain LFTB. This resulted in a tough decision for schools. If they elected to go LFTB-free, they were left with two undesirable choices: cheap and high fat beef, or expensive and low fat beef.

So what are schools likely to do?

Most schools will take the cost saving route — which is what more Americans are doing these days. According to USDA data, last year 37 percent of beef sold was the lower-priced fattier ground beef. Today, that figure has risen to 48 percent. There are two reasons for this increase: First, lean ground beef now costs 50 cents more per pound; second, there’s simply less lean ground beef on the market. In fact, the U.S. cattle herd is at its lowest level since the 1950s. And according to the Congressional Research Service, these price hikes are expected to continue and note that “the decisions made by many retailers to halt the use of LFTB will result in even higher priced#…#”

The First Lady has made school lunches and obesity her signature issues. One wonders why she has remained silent on the LFTB issue. A nod from her on LFTB’s value would go far not only with critics of the beef industry but to quell the concerns of moms and dads who trust her on this issue.

As parents peruse the weekly lunch menu provided to them by their child’s school, they might consider the beef’s fat content in their child’s taco and cheeseburger; they might wonder just how much that low-fat beef cost their child’s school and wonder what those dollars might have purchased instead.

And hopefully they will see through the next round of media-hype about a food product, which rarely makes us healthier, but does make us poorer.

— Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.