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The Physicians Committee

USDA Should Cancel Plan to Purchase $40 Million of Chicken Products for School Lunches

Aug. 23, 2011

Secretary Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

I am writing on behalf of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit health advocacy organization, to urge you to cancel the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recently announced plan to purchase $40 million of chicken products for use in school lunches and other federal food assistance programs.

This massive government bailout aims to help the chicken industry by propping up prices in the face of cooling consumer demand for chicken products. But given the unprecedented increase in childhood obesity and the overall deterioration of children’s health, we are shocked that the USDA would encourage the use of high-fat and cholesterol-laden chicken products in child nutrition programs. Some school lunch programs, including The Des Moines Independent Community School District in your hometown, already serve chicken nuggets or other high-fat chicken products almost every day.

The National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children.  At that time, Americans were concerned with malnutrition caused by a shortage of food. Today, we are concerned with over- consumption, especially over- consumption of high-fat animal products, which are loaded with saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories.

More than 12 million American kids are now characterized as obese. One in three children is now overweight. One in five teens has an abnormal cholesterol level. One in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The food currently provided through the NSLP has not kept pace with what we know today to be truly healthy and nutritious food. Rather, the foods provided in the program under the guise of good nutrition—chicken nuggets, pepperoni pizza, and cheeseburgers—are there to prop up agribusiness incomes and are part of the problem that has created a generation of overweight children. 

The last thing our children need is more chicken in the school lunch line. Chicken nuggets derive about 60 percent of their calories from fat. Even at its leanest—white meat, no skin, no added fat—chicken gets about 23 percent of its calories from fat. That’s not much lower than lean beef, at 28 percent, and much higher than beans, rice, or typical fruits and vegetables (less than 10 percent). Like beef, a substantial amount of that fat is saturated fat—the kind linked to heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer.

USDA figures show that a typical cut of beef has about 86 milligrams of cholesterol in a 3.5-ounce portion. The same serving size of skinless chicken (white meat) has 85 milligrams. In contrast, foods derived from plants have no cholesterol at all.

Contamination by salmonella or campylobacter is also a major concern. These bacteria have been found on approximately one-third of chicken products at retail stores. They were in the chicken’s feces during life and splattered onto the skin and muscle tissue during slaughter and evisceration. Cooking kills them. But it does not kill the germs that landed on the kitchen counter, cutting board, or hands as the bird is unwrapped.

Federal food assistance programs should be aimed at reversing America’s obesity epidemic—not accelerating it. That’s why the USDA must act now to support the inclusion of healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, and plant-based entrées in child nutrition programs, and it must discourage children from consuming the foods that are feeding the obesity epidemic. 

In conclusion, we ask that you (1) cancel the impending chicken purchase, and (2) refrain from using child nutrition programs as a means for boosting agribusiness incomes. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions. 


Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

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