When you think about the food being served in school cafeterias nationwide, do the words meat recall, animal abuse, unsanitary conditions and slaughter plant shutdowns come to mind? Perhaps they should. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily shut the doors of Central Valley Meat (CVM), a dairy cow slaughter plant in Hanford, CA — and a major supplier to the National School Lunch Program and other federal food initiatives. The notice to suspend operations was based on USDA findings of unsanitary conditions, the details of which have not yet been publicly disclosed. Yet, just as soon as the media began covering the story, the suspension was lifted, allowing operations to resume. This isn’t the first time USDA has shut down CVM. In August 2012, Compassion Over Killing, a national animal protection organization, released an undercover video exposing the abuse of animals inside this Hanford slaughter plant. The video shows cows, many of whom were sick or injured, being mistreated. Unable to walk to the kill floor, many cows were repeatedly poked, electrically prodded and lifted by their tails in an effort to get them moving. Many were eventually shot in the head. In some cases, cows were shot multiple times before dying. In other cases, despite being shot many times, cows were suffocated to death by workers who stepped on their mouths and nostrils. After viewing this footage, USDA immediately shut the facility down, citing “egregious inhumane handling and treatment of livestock.” This story of abuse made national and international headlines and was the topic of an exclusive investigative report on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer. As a consequence of the shutdown, federal nutrition programs suspended purchases from CVM. Several major food retailers — including In-N-Out Burger, McDonald’s and Costco — also severed ties with the facility. Later that month, however, USDA lifted its operational suspension, allowing CVM to reopen. Shortly thereafter, the federal government resumed its purchases from this facility — putting meat from CVM back onto the plates of our nation’s students. CVM has been shut down twice by USDA, but that’s not all. In 2011, CVM was cited by Cal-OSHA for serious safety violations after a worker was killed in a meat blender. And then, in 2013, CVM issued a recall of an estimated 90,000 pounds of ground beef — meat that was on its way to school cafeterias across the country — based on concerns that it may have contained small pieces of plastic. This is not the only slaughter plant to raise USDA’s concerns for the safety of meat going into our school lunches. In 2008, the Humane Society of the United States uncovered abuses at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co., another dairy cow slaughter plant in California. USDA shut the facility down in response to the video, which showed sick cows who were too weak to even stand up forced onto the kill floor and slaughtered for human consumption. The agency declared the meat to be “unfit for human food” and issued the largest meat recall in our nation’s history. About a third of that recalled meat — 50 million pounds — had been distributed to American schoolchildren. The questionable safety of the meat entering the National School Lunch Program is hardly a new topic. But with these mounting examples of meat safety concerns, including recalls and slaughter plant shutdowns, the time is ripe to address these important issues for the sake of our children and farmed animals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common sources of foodborne illness outbreaks come from animal origins. As such, replacing meat with vegetarian options may help reduce food safety risks. Eating more fruits and vegetables offers other health benefits as well. In the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, USDA, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced that “vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes.” The animals would certainly benefit from the switch, too. Schools across the country — from Los Angeles to Baltimore to Buffalo — have successfully adopted Meatless Monday menus, demonstrating support and demand for meat-free, healthy meals. It’s becoming increasingly clear that one of the safest and healthiest choices for our children is to start subtracting meat and adding vegetarian options to the school lunch equation.