The Unappetizing Politics of School Lunches

The Unappetizing Politics of School Lunches

The Unappetizing Politics of School Lunches

How a progressive idea ended up reinforcing inequality.


Eliza Krigman

June 4, 2008

Morgan Spurlock drew attention to school lunch programs in his 2004 hit, Super Size Me, highlighting some of the questionable content of lunches served to students and the controversy surrounding the powerful grocery lobby today. In School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program, author Susan Levine provides a comprehensive examination of school lunches’ complex history from the birth of home economics and food as a nutritional science to the arrival of vending machines in cafeterias. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) started out as a welfare program but instead became a boon to the agriculture and commercial food industries.

Perhaps modeled after Marion Nestle’s seminal Food Politics, Levine’s book neither endorses nor attacks the program, but instead concerns herself with providing an accurate account of all the factors that created and sustained the school lunch program. She leaves out recommendations for how to improve the system, but today’s school lunch program suffers from many of the same problems Levine describes through the history of its creation: insufficient funds, poor nutrition content and a limited ability to provide lunches to those most in need.   

From its inception, The National School Lunch Program dealt with the competing interests of nutrition and child welfare advocates, U.S. agricultural priorities, and, later in its history, the commercial food industry. Levine’s book details how the school lunch program struggled to meet its stated goals, oftentimes reinforcing inequality and discrimination.

The idea for school lunches grew from a nutritional reform movement. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the science of food was largely aimed at livestock and agricultural productivity. But during the Progressive Era between 1880 and 1930, food nutrition for humans developed as part of the optimistic effort to bring efficiency, expertise, and rational organization to industry, agriculture, and the domestic sphere. With a new value and understanding of human nutrition, the economic depression of the 1930s gave way to the idea, and public support, for a national school lunch program.

Throughout the book, Levine shows how more often than not, concern for improved nutrition and children’s welfare lost out to agricultural priorities and business. The first legislated incarnation of the program—the 1946 National School Lunch Act—made lunchrooms an outlet for surplus agricultural commodities. Consequently, the goal of providing a balanced meal was largely dependent on what kind of agricultural products were in surplus on a given year.  Lunchrooms could not plan on the type of food the federal government would send them and the ability to provide a nutritious lunch was seriously strained.

Although the NSLP intended to provide lunch for all American children, the federal government didn’t fully fund it. States were required to match federal funding, which ultimately meant that costs ended up increasing children’s enrollment fees. “In 1947…federal contributions accounted for 32 cents out of each school lunch dollar, while state and municipal contributions made up about 12 cents,” Levine writes. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, children’s fees accounted for over 50 percent of funding for school lunches. The funding structure was a huge barrier to participation. In 1960, for example, only about half of the nation’s public and private schools contracted with the department of Agriculture for lunch programs. 

Lack of funds and enforcement resulted in incomplete participation. The Southern Democratic senators who designed the program, and the Department of Agriculture that administered it, were staunch advocates of states’ rights and expressly forbid federal management of the lunchroom. This left states and communities to determine how (and if at all) to create a school lunch program.

The NSLP’s funding and administrative structure resulted in systematic reinforcement of inequality and racism. Insufficient federal funds put poorer states at a disadvantage to participate and these states were primarily home to minorities. “The Department of Agriculture did nothing to ensure the participation of black schools in racially segregated Southern districts, nor did it establish any policies or guidelines to enforce the School Lunch Act’s mandate that poor children north or south, receive free meals,” Levine wrote. In 1963, the NSLP in Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and Mississippi only reached 26 percent of non-white children as compared to 62 percent of white children. In Maryland, only one out of eight students in the black high schools received school lunches versus one in two or one in three in white schools.

Had Congress fully funded the NSLP, thereby providing lunches for all public school children, the deepening of inequality and racism could have been avoided. Although the federal assistance program needed national standards on eligibility criteria, none were established for the first two and a half decades of the program’s existence. In 1971, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finally issued guidelines which enumerated minimum income standards for free lunch eligibility. Unfortunately, flawed administration of subsidized lunches, such as creating separate lines for paying students and non-paying students, created a negative social stigma for those receiving the benefit and discouraged participation. USDA Secretary Orville Freeman knew that poor children were almost entirely excluded from the schoolroom lunches but did not want to relinquish control of the program.

In the 1960s, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) pushed to take over the NSLP. HEW wanted to restructure the program to prioritize children’s’ needs over the demands of farmers. While the department successfully created some free lunch programs for poor children in urban areas and predominantly black rural counties, the USDA feared that a focus on welfare could lead to increased federal scrutiny over Jim Crow restrictions on benefits for blacks and refused to let HEW absorb the program.

The USDA’s inability to achieve the lunch program’s goals opened the door to privatization. To accommodate the products of brand-name foods, federal nutrition standards were bent so far out of shape that ketchup was declared a vegetable (although this is no longer the case). Still, the nutrition of schoolroom lunches has not improved with private companies nor have they improved the financial woes of the NSLP.

Today, a meal consisting of chicken nuggets, tater tots, and canned fruit cocktail in heavy syrup meets all USDA nutrition requirements.  With limited funds from the federal government, schools have no choice but to use commercial brands or pre-cooked commodities from the USDA. What’s more, the negative social stigma attached to receiving free or subsidized school lunches remains a prominent challenge. Just this past March, the New York Times reported that high school students in San Francisco opt to go hungry instead of be seen in the free or subsidized lunch line (yes, the two line system is still pervasive throughout the country.) Only 37 percent of eligible high school students in San Francisco take advantage of the subsidized meal program.

With six decades of limited success and the inability to resolve recurring problems, the National School Lunch Program needs an overhaul. The federal government should prioritize finding ways to subsidize lunches without marginalizing the poor over agriculture subsidies. Ultimately, School Lunch Politics shows how sound social policy can be compromised by politics. The home economists, nutritionists, and child welfare advocates that popularized the idea envisioned healthy lunches for all children. But once in the hands of Congress and the USDA, feeding the needy and ensuring proper nutrition took a second seat to benefitting U.S. agricultural commodities. The next time the School Lunch Program is up for re-authorization, Congress should look to restore the progressive values that inspired its creation.

Eliza Krigman is a Staff and Research Assistant for the Brookings Institution’s economic studies program. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005.

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