Unhappy Meals: The secret toxic ingredients in high school lunches

This article is one of the winning submissions from the New York Post Scholars Contest, presented by Command Education.

The toxins and pesticides found in the 30 million school meals served daily in the United States are much worse than finding half a worm in your apple.

Used to kill insects, fungi, weeds and other pests, pesticides are a typical ingredient in school lunches. Even as continuous research comes out pointing towards its disastrous effects on public health, changes have yet to be made.

Students, choosing the seemingly healthy snack of an apple, do not know that this pesticide residue, according to the World Health Organization, can open them up to adverse health effects, including cancer and effects on reproductive, immune or nervous systems. While students are unknowingly getting hurt the pesticide-biotech industry serves to benefit.

In September of 2022, Moms Across America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for a healthy future for children in America, published the test results of 43 school lunch samples collected by parents and students from public schools in 15 states, including New York. A little more than 95% contained the herbicide glyphosate, a suspected carcinogenic. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Bayer’s Roundup, the weed killer most widely used in conventional agriculture worldwide.

“Children in the U.S. are regularly exposed to this cancer-causing weed killer through the food they eat virtually every day…The Environmental Protection Agency should take concrete regulatory action to dramatically lower the levels of glyphosate in the food supply and protect children’s health,” says Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., EWG toxicologist.

An Inadequate EPA

In March 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC—an arm of the World Health Organization—classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” when a 17-member panel reviewed almost 1000 peer-reviewed, published studies on the potential carcinogenicity of the chemical.

In April 2019, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released an analysis that gave weight to studies connecting glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and recommended monitoring children’s exposure to this toxic weed killer. However, the Environmental Protection Agency still ignores many of these studies, stating, “No risks of concern to human health from current uses of glyphosate.” They continue to side with the pesticide industry while school children continue to suffer.

Glyphosate is not the only harmful ingredient in your school lunch: the MAA test results additionally revealed that 74% of lunches contained at least one of 29 harmful pesticides, 21% contained four veterinary drugs and hormones at high levels, and 100% contained heavy metals at levels up to 6,293 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) maximum levels allowed in drinking water.

“These test results of the school lunches show us that we have a national crisis on our hands,” says MAA Director, Zen Honeycutt. “Our government is allowing our children to be poisoned with a shocking number of toxins that contribute to various health, behavioral, and learning issues. In addition, the nutrient density of the food is almost completely deficient, leaving our children’s bodies starving for nutrients, unable to develop properly, and lacking nutrients that their brains need to learn and make sound decisions.”

The Money Makers

Many of these lunches contain genetically modified crops, banned or restricted in more than 60 countries, yet are fed to American children daily.

Genetically engineered crops that promise to make food and agriculture simpler, safer and more efficient have, instead, dramatically driven up the use of harmful chemicals and increased health risks for students. Their promise of higher yields and reduced reliance on pesticides has been a ploy to boost the markets of the pesticide-biotech industry.

Engineered crops are designed for use with chemical herbicides and contain insecticides. Over time, pests evolved resistance to them and their associated pesticides, which has led to the creation of “superweeds” and “superbugs.” Farmers resort to using even more chemicals to combat the superbugs, creating even more danger for themselves and those eating their foods.

The Pesticide Action Network points out that the only ones that serve to benefit from genetically engineered crops are the biotech companies. They also manufacture pesticides engineered to accompany their seed products. In 2011 alone, the crops used 20 percent more pesticides on average than non-engineered crops.

The sales of the pesticide industry—including corporations like Bayer (Monsanto), DowDuPont, Syngenta and BASF—are increasing as more kids are continuously being poisoned. Monsanto’s (now merged with Bayer) net income, for example, doubled from $993 million in 2007 to $2 billion in 2008 with the creation of the genetically engineered crops.

The government should not be prioritizing the profit of these pesticide corporations over the health of our children. We must ensure that American students have access to healthy, non-harmful lunches.

Open your mind to the truth behind the juicy, red delicious apple your school serves, and choose to protect American students.

An 11th-grader at The Ramaz School in Manhattan, Zoltan envisions a future in the healthcare field, where she can make a difference in her community.