Thursday, September 30, 2010

History of School Lunch: Lesson 2, When Politics Hit the Plate

In the Beginning, Some Good Ideas

Long before the 1946 legislation, there were some good models for a school lunch program in existence. One such program initiated by Victor Hugo in France in 1877 was not only innovative for its time, but even ahead of current programs in one facet. Hugo designed a lunch program that distributed identical lunch “tickets” to both children who were receiving free lunches and those paying. Doing so, he eliminated social stigma for the free lunches and any barriers to participation.

Even today in the US, not all lunch programs have addressed this issue. According to a 2008 New York Times article, only 37 percent of high school students in San Franscisco who are eligible for free meals took advantage of the program primarily due to a two-line system that exposed the kids to social stigma in front of their peers.

In the US, many of the early school lunch programs were a joint effort between school staff — who saw an immediate improvement in student performance with better nutrition — and early parent-teacher organizations. Some of the features of these early programs included school gardens, having children help prepare meals and in one case, keeping a cow on school property to educate kids about the source of their milk.

These innovative programs sound quite a bit like the “ground-breaking” Edible Schoolyard movement from Berkeley. It may be surprising to learn they were in place in the early 1900s. They were born out of necessity and a singular goal of getting better nutrition to kids who need it for their health and their academic performance. Still, the grassroots programs were not reaching all students or in place in all schools in the country.

Enter politics

While the 1946 legislation sounded like a good thing, there are a few key points about the bill that were the seeds of the school lunch problem we now face.

First, the legislation served two purposes, one more than the other. Rather than be focused solely on feeding children a nutritious meal, the program was designed as an outlet for surplus agricultural commodities — a means to prop up food prices for farmers. School lunch menus were now dependent on the foods provided instead of planned around the foods children needed for optimal nutrition.

The legislation set the foundation for serving agricultural interests above child welfare, opening the door to the commodity-driven food products and commercially-processed items that dominate today’s food supply and thus, our children’s school lunch menu.

Second, the national funding had to be matched by state funding. This was a problem specifically for states with lower income and areas of poverty — states with higher numbers of minority children were especially troubled. The states’ matching funds were often sourced from increased enrollment fees. Suddenly, low-income kids were presented with an additional barrier to school attendance instead of a free nutritious meal.

The irony of this is significant when you consider that early lunch programs a century before and up to 1946 were specifically designed to provide meals in order to encourage school attendance by these children.

Despite the obvious inequality that resulted from the program, no significant changes were made to the legislation for the next 25 years, until 1971.

In effect, the higher enrollment fees became a kind of Jim Crow law that kept minority children from receiving an education as well as lunch. As late as 1963, the National School Lunch program in Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and Mississippi only reached 26 percent of non-white children as compared to 62 percent of white children.

During the 1960s, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare tried to take over the National School Lunch Program in order to correct these issues. The USDA fought the takeover attempt and retained the program even as they were unable to make it successful.

By the early 1970s, Earl Butz “King of Corn” headed up the USDA as Secretary of Agriculture. His policy of “go big or get out” fueled the growth of agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and food processors like ConAgra, a heavy emphasis on commodity crops such as corn and soy, the decline of family farms, and our resulting food supply that is heavily skewed toward processed commodity food “products” and cheap factory-farmed meat.

The failing school lunch program, inundated by USDA agribusiness politics, moved to privatization. School cafeterias disappeared. There was a rise in centralized distribution of processed and often branded school foods. USDA nutrition standards hit such an all-time low that in the late 1970s and 1980s ketchup counted as a “vegetable.”

Thirty years later, about the only improvement we’ve seen is that ketchup is no longer considered a vegetable. Nutrition guidelines still allow for a “balanced meal” of sweetened and flavored milk, chicken nuggets or “corn dogs,” tater tots, and canned fruit in heavy syrup. Branded fast foods and processed junk foods are available for purchase in our schools.

Americans now rank number one in the world for our obesity rate, and our food system as a whole is incredibly broken and fraught with politics. The current school lunch legislation being proposed may help remove those “competitive foods” but won’t fund better options well enough and what increase there will be for funding will come at the cost of food stamp programs.

Here we are 2010 ...

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1 comment:

Rachel said...

My primary school used to have a milk program for lunchtime - I clearly remember when the program started offering chocolate milk as an option. I was in first grade, so, 1983 and it was a novelty, because in kindergarten, we only had whole milk. Obviously, there's no nutritional reason to offer kids chocolate milk over plain milk, so you can date some sort of decision making from there...