The internet is buzzing with stories about Michelle Obama’s failed school lunch reform efforts. The focus has mainly been on the calorie limits placed on the meals and how this one-size-fits-all meal plan is hurting kids—particularly those who play sports and need extra calories.  But what hasn’t been highlighted is the quality of food being served and whether the food has actually improved as was promised by the First Lady, the President and various other federal agency heads. In fact, in 2010, when the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act was signed into law, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack praised the effort, saying:

“Today is a great day for kids throughout our country as they will soon have healthier, and more nutritious food in their schools. As we continue to focus on the twin issues of childhood obesity and hunger, we will increase access to good, quality meals in school cafeterias so the nutritional needs of our youngsters are better met. “

Healthier?  More nutritious?  Good quality meals?

Not exactly. In fact, now more than ever, kids are being fed high-fat beef because most schools are opting to save money rather than purchase higher quality, lower fat beef. 

Hmmm…doesn’t sound like an improvement to me?

Of course, schools didn’t always have to make this Sophie’s choice. Not so long ago, schools were able to purchase both low cost and low-fat beef. But now that options been taken away so schools must either pay a premium for higher quality, low-fat beef or settle for the high-fat beef that better fits the school’s budget.

The reason for this change? Hysterical claims that kids were being fed “pink slime.”

Pink slime (more accurately called finely textured beef) certainly has a high yuck factor (meat paste never photographs well!) but the truth is, this beef product is perfectly safe and it’s 98 percent fat free.  

So, how exactly is this finely textured beef used?  The system is simple to understand; higher-fat beef—particularly beef intended for school meals and will most likely to be used in hamburger patties, meat loaves and taco filling—is simply mixed with the 98 percent fat free finely textured beef so that the finished product contains a lower percentage of fat. So, a pound of beef that would have contained 30 percent beef fat is lowered to 15 or 20 percent beef fat once the finely textured beef product is mixed into it without the price being increased. This was a win/win for schools. They were able to get low fat beef at a low price.

But because of a wildly inaccurate report about the product on ABC News (I described that false reporting in more detail here), calls to end the use of finely textured beef were rampant and in response (and despite issuing statements of support for finely textured beef), the USDA allowed schools to purchase beef that did not include finely textured beef. Which brings us back to the difficult choice schools must now make: high cost/low fat or low cost/high fat.

The consquences of the pink slime hysterics haven't only hit kids. The economic impact has been enormous: several finely textured beef plants closed in the Midwest and thousands of beef industry employs lost their jobs.

It’s clear that the latest round of school meal reforms is a bust but not just because kids are being left hungry at schools. They’re being fed food that doesn’t meet Michelle Obama’s high standards.