SANTA BARBARA—Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) just became the first known school district in the United States to remove processed meat—including hot dogs, pepperoni, and bacon—from each of its schools’ lunch menus.
The new policy, which launched throughout the district in September, is based on strong and consistent scientific evidence linking processed meat to cancer.
“SBUSD is committed to serving our students nutritious foods that will help them learn and grow,” says Santa Barbara’s food service director Nancy Weiss. “It’s the right thing to do to ensure that our students are getting the highest-quality food. There’s no room for carcinogens on the lunch line.”
A 2015 World Health Organization report classified processed meat as "carcinogenic to humans," based on a meta-analysis that found an 18 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer per 50 grams of processed meat—the equivalent of one hot dog or two strips of bacon—consumed daily.
A study published by the National Cancer Institute found that young people today have double and quadruple the risks of colon and rectal cancers, respectively, compared to those born in the 1950s, due to low-fiber diets, high consumption of processed meats, and lack of physical activity. Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in California.
Weiss has been making strides in improving school food since taking over as Santa Barbara’s food service director in 2007. When she first arrived, the district served mostly “heat-and-serve” meals and had partnerships with fast-food restaurants, including McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Today, SBUSD serves a fully scratch-cooked menu, using whole grains and fresh, local organic produce.
SBUSD also serves a plant-based option at each meal. Options include plant-based chili rojo burritos, Thai green curry bowls, vegan “meatball” subs, and veggie pozole. Of the 2 million meals SBUSD serves every year, approximately 50 percent of the meals are vegan. The plant-based options often sell out more quickly than the meat-based meals.
“SBUSD has long been a leader when it comes to serving healthy school food and nutrition education,” says Physicians Committee dietitian Maggie Neola, R.D. “Removing processed meat from the menu and focusing on plant-based alternatives will not only help to reduce students’ cancer risk, but it will also reduce their heart disease, obesity, and diabetes risk in the future and boost performance in the classroom today.”
Other districts may soon follow Santa Barbara’s lead. Earlier this year, New York City City Council members introduced legislation that would remove processed meat from the city’s school lunches.
Those who consume the most processed meat also have an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease, America’s leading cause of death, according to a 2009 National Institutes of Health study of more than a half-million people. A recent JAMA study found that processed meat consumption was tied to 57,766 deaths from cardiometabolic diseases in 2012.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research and medical training.