Food Fight! School Lunchrooms Are Still a Political Battleground

National School Lunch Week is upon us, but is there really a reason to celebrate?

According to Congress, there is — and there has been since 1962, when a joint resolution of Congress established the annual observance.

But the government’s involvement in midday meals began almost thirty years before it decided to designate a whole week to the celebration of school lunch programs.

The Advent of Federally-Sponsored School Lunch

Prior to the Great Depression, childhood malnutrition was an issue left — like a great many social problems — to private charity. During the ravages that followed the 1929 stock market crash, a series of laws were passed under Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt that established the feeding of school children as a federal responsibility. Like many New Deal initiatives, school lunch programs served more than one constituency. Federally-funded lunch programs were designed to address not only the needs of impoverished students, but also those of the nation’s great many farmers who could not find buyers for their produce. Since 1933, the federal government has been purchasing surplus agricultural commodities to counteract a stagnant economy. In 1936, Public Law 320 yoked the overabundance of food to the scourge of childhood hunger, making public school students the ultimate consumers of a significant percentage of these surplus commodities.

In 1946, President Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which made permanent these Depression-era arrangements. Because the roots of this program were based on a commodity agreement between farmers and the government, food industry lobbyists from the salt, dairy, and fast-food industries have sought for spot on your child’s lunch plate ever since.

A Recent History of School Lunch

The food wars are still being waged between local producers and lobbyists for larger food corporations that are subsidized by the government, though the battleground has shifted. What started as a program to assist farmers while tackling poverty has more recently refocused to reduce the rate of childhood obesity, an epidemic caused in part by the country’s enormous surplus of corn — which led to the widespread availability of corn-based processed foods and the unnecessary addition of high fructose corn syrup to already-sweet foods (like yogurt). (The effect of hunger on children’s academic performance remains a concern).

The result is that families rely on cheaper, processed foods, rather than “whole” foods like fruits and vegetables, for inexpensive calories. It’s not a surprise that many schools — whose budgets are stretched thin — do the same.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 was conceived by First Lady Michelle Obama as an extension of the Let’s Move! initiative to combat childhood obesity. In America, 17 percent of children could be categorized as obese. In other words: 12.7 million kids are significantly overweight.

The timing of the Act was ideal. The First Lady strategized the bill’s implementation around Child Nutrition Reauthorization, regulations that are renewed every five years following an evaluation of all laws concerning federal control of school meals.

HHFKA, in its attempt to undo the “1/4 cup of tomato paste = 1/2 cup of vegetables” rule, was met with fury in Congress, with lobbyists from the likes of Coca-Cola and Del Monte spending nearly $6 million to keep pizza and potatoes in the cafeteria.

The question of what constitutes a vegetable, in a country where cereals are fortified, bread is enriched, and “organic” has become a marketing term, can be confusing to many. In fact, many of today’s parents will remember the “ketchup is a vegetable” controversy of their youth; in order to accommodate the budget cuts set forth in President Reagan’s Omnibus Act, approximately $1 billion was pulled from the school lunch program, and the USDA was given only 90 days to come up with a nutritional plan based on the decreased budget. In a scramble, the organization proposed that it could “accept catsup as a fruit/vegetable when used as an ingredient.” Pickle relish was also acceptable. The idea was widely ridiculed. (Later, Clinton would approve the categorization of salsa as a vegetable.)

The Proposed State of School Lunch

Now, it’s 2015, and the HHFKA is up for reauthorization once again.

The First Lady’s current bill, among other things, promises:

  • the USDA the authority to set new nutritional benchmarks for all food sold at school, including what is sold in vending machines

  • resources for schools to access fresh produce via local farms

  • increased access to school lunch programs, with 115,000 more children able to participate

  • more meals for after-school programs in high-risk neighborhoods

  • stricter monitoring, with schools audited every three years to ensure their lunches meet nutritional standards

At the heart of HHFKA are standards based on the consumption of whole grains and vegetables. The Food Pyramid, first introduced by the Department of Agriculture in 1992, is now widely considered outdated. HHFKA has replaced it with MyPlate, a nutritional guide that advocates for half of each meal to include fresh fruits and vegetables, and for one-quarter to consist of whole grains.

Whole grains are supposedly one major reason why the bill is being challenged: Some kids aren’t adapting well to the new nutritional standards, and schools say they are wasting produce and funds, throwing out apple after apple. The Times-Picayune reports that a seventh-grader at St. Joan of Arc School in LaPlace, LA, even wrote a letter to the First Lady, dramatically stating that, with the whole-wheat tortilla requirement, she had “ruined Taco Tuesday.”

The Future of School Lunch

It seems like we’ve come a long way from the days in which ketchup was considered both an ingredient (rather than a condiment) and a vegetable, but problems remain: Kids don’t want to eat their vegetables. Since there’s currently no way to make a piece of steamed broccoli taste like a milkshake, how should schools deal with this problem of wasted food and potentially still-hungry children?

According to the Los Angeles Times, grant money is being set aside for chefs to work with schools to develop better-tasting food, and to improve kitchen cookware — ideally to make steamed food taste more fried. But ultimately, providing meals that are slightly healthier but mimic “bad” foods will only set children up to continue making poor nutritional decisions.

By contrast, lessons about food that can be discussed at home and put into practice at the supermarket work. A pilot program and study called Nutrition Detectives taught both students and their parents the proper way to read nutritional labels and to identify marketing language; at the end of the study, the group had significantly lowered its caloric, sugar, and sodium intake.

The seeds of nutritional awareness, thoughtfulness, and intelligence need to be planted early, and they need to be planted widely.

A special grant program now exists to help schools encourage kids to make healthy choices. Smarter Lunchrooms, developed by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs, has schools restructure lunchlines so produce is the most accessible item, and gives fruits and veggies creative nicknames that appeal to kids.

School lunch programs have always faced the challenge of ensuring that kids get the nutrition they need, but it appears that the HHFKA, at least, has succeeded; kids are eating their fruits and veggies. According to a study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has led to a 23 percent increase in fruit consumption, and a 16 percent increase in vegetable consumption during school lunch — both of which offer reason to celebrate.

Curious about what lunch is really like at your school? Ask a question on its Noodle profile — and see the schools near you.