Every day during the school year, more than 30 million children receive free or reduced-price lunches under the federal National School Lunch Program, and 10 million get breakfast under the National School Breakfast Program. Pork is included in many of the meals served through those important programs.

But several health and animal-rights groups are trying to reduce or eliminate meat from the school menu, and they may have a vehicle to bring about a change — the Child Nutrition Act.

Congress must reauthorize or extend the act, which expires Sept. 30. Signed into law in 1966, it incorporated the 1946 National School Lunch Act and established the school breakfast program. It was approved to help meet the nutritional needs of children and to “encourage the domestic consumption of agricultural and other foods.”

Groups such as the American Institute of Cancer Research/World Cancer Research Foundation and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal-rights organization, are urging lawmakers to include in the reauthorized act requirements for more fruits and vegetables in the school food programs. While no one takes issue with that request, those organizations also are calling for the programs to include less or no processed meat, claiming that such “high-fat” products are contributing to obesity, heart disease and cancer.

Recent reports from cancer organizations have attempted to link “red” and processed meat consumption with higher cancer and heart disease rates. But the “studies” conducted to reach those conclusions have been flawed — one was based on a food questionnaire using a highly criticized research method — and failed to consider the health benefits of nutrient-rich meats such as pork.

In fact, meat provides what have been identified as “nutrients of concern.” Those include nutrients that the federal government says most people don’t get enough of — including potassium, iron and vitamin B12 (which is found only in food from animals). Additionally, vital nutrients such as iron and zinc are easier for humans to absorb when they come from meat versus vegetables.

For example, a serving of roast pork tenderloin is an excellent source of protein, thiamin, vitamin B6, phosphorous and niacin; it is a good source of riboflavin, potassium and zinc. Furthermore, a 3-ounce portion contributes just 6 percent of the 2,000 recommended daily calories an average person should consume. Pork producers, responding to consumer demand over the past 30 years for lower-fat foods, are producing a leaner product. A 2006 USDA study found that six common pork cuts contain 16 percent less total fat and 27 percent less saturated fat than 15 years ago. It also found that pork contains no artery-clogging trans fats.

Today’s pork is a lean — that 3-ounce tenderloin has 2.98 grams of fat compared to 3.03 grams for the same-sized serving of skinless chicken breast — low-calorie, relatively low-cost source of high-quality protein, according to the National Pork Board.

Published scientific reports support including lean pork in eating plans that prevent or manage chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, and lean meat can play a role in weight control. Research shows that eating lean pork, for example, improves feelings of fullness and supports the retention of lean muscle, a key component of long-term weight maintenance; and too much weight, along with a lack of physical activity, is a leading cause of chronic health problems.

While people in the pork industry may know these facts, the anti-meat crowd has never let the truth get in the way of its agenda, and you can expect them to smear pork as one of the “bad foods.”

In addition to targeting the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization, anti-meat groups also may take aim at the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are the basis for federal food policy. They are scheduled for updates in 2010. There is speculation that Congress will simply extend the Child Nutrition Act for five years rather than reauthorize it so that the new dietary guidelines can be considered in setting school food-program policy.

A scientific advisory committee is currently reviewing the guidelines and will make recommendations late this year to the secretaries of USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. The 2005 guidelines recommend that an average sedentary adult consume 5.5 ounces a day from the Meat and Beans Group, which includes pork. Guidelines for the group range from 2 ounces for 2-year-olds to 6.5 ounces for young men.

Some organizations want those numbers reduced, while others want meat separated from the Meat and Bean Group as a way to better target it for reduction or elimination from federal food programs.

Another issue likely to surface during congressional debate on the Child Nutrition Act is the safety of food. People want to know — as well they should — that the food they eat is free from pathogens that can cause illness and even death. Recent food-safety scares, ironically involving fruits and vegetables, have prompted Congress to review the nation’s food-safety system. This may spawn efforts to include in the child nutrition law new safety regimens for food production, limits on antibiotic use and restrictions on certain animal production practices.

The National Pork Producers Council is lobbying members of Congress to keep such mischief out of the Child Nutrition Act and to oppose efforts to reduce or eliminate pork from the school breakfast and lunch menus.

The bottom line is that health professionals and consumers understand moderation and variety in all foods, including nutrient-dense meats such as pork. Also, people must eat more fruits and vegetables, cut calories and get adequate physical activity for optimal health. PE

Jill Appell is a pork producer from Alton, Ill., who serves on the National Pork Producers Council’s Animal Health and Food Security Policy Committee.