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School lunch at Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

• August 19, 2014 • 6:00 AM

School lunch at Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Mystery meat will always win.

In March 1902 students at the Robert A. Waller High School in Chicago reached a culinary breaking point. Every one of them signed a petition condemning the school’s lunch program. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that the kids’ “digestive machinery is in rebellion,” and was explicit about what had to change: “They want brain food.”

Today, the Chicago Public School system has branched out beyond beef broth and spicy candy—the items that students protested back in 1902. Multilingual school lunch menus are now marked with fashionable culinary emblems: “V” for vegetarian, “L” for local ingredients, “O” for organic, and “W” for “whole grain products.” But it would still be quite a stretch to say that the students are eating brain food.

Apples, carrots, and steamed broccoli are in ample evidence, but they’re token choices among “Main Course” items such as a “BBQ meatball sub,” “popcorn chicken,” “cheesy breadsticks,” “BBQ chicken pizza slice,” corn dogs, and French fries. The breakfast menu includes “French toast sticks,” “sausage breakfast pizza,” and “a sausage egg muffin.” Today’s students would be too stuffed to stage a food revolt. Plus, there isn’t even a cook to take to the woodshed. All food is sourced from Aramark, a foodservice giant that also supplies prisons and health care institutions.

Our ongoing effort to teach kids healthy eating habits isn’t the problem. Trying to do so through the school lunch menu undoubtedly is.

What accounts for the fact that, despite a century-long effort to bring healthy food to public schools, students are still being offered so much junk?

In 1946 Congress passed the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), kicking off the most ambitious mass feeding experiment in American history. Calorically, it’s been a terrific success. Federally sponsored school lunch currently enables 30 million children at 98,000 schools to eat a hot meal every school day. The majority of these kids—60 percent—do so for free. There are no longer hunger pangs at public schools, which is a remarkable achievement given the historical reality of underfed students. (Interesting side note: When the U.S. Army physically evaluated soldiers conscripted for World War I, it was appalled by the rates of malnourishment; this realization led to an evaluation of school kids, who turned out to be even more malnourished.) As Susan Levine, author of School Lunch Politics: The History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program, writes, “without school lunches, many children in this country would go hungry.” In this sense, there’s much to celebrate.

But as a nutritional endeavor, these lunches have tanked. Dietitians have been lamenting substandard school lunches since pushcart vendors started hawking adulterated grub to school kids in the 1890s. But makers of public policy generally don’t really listen to dietitians. In fact, the quest for a nutritionally wholesome lunch didn’t become a matter of public concern until quite recently, when a group with significantly more clout hoisted the bullhorn of nutritional reform: celebrity chefs. Their proposed revolution—much of which is televised—is bold: They want to commandeer the cafeteria and replace the frozen French fries with fresh broccoli. And if that broccoli is locally sourced, organic, and sautéed with a tab of butter churned from grass-fed cows who gets to listen to live jazz—well, all the better.

As far as it goes, this tack makes a lot of sense. Televised chefs, at least the ones I’ve watched, appear to be smart, rigorous, and charismatic figures. I’ve seen my own son, for one, become almost obnoxiously vigilant about food quality after watching countless episodes of Master Chef and Top Chef. There’s little doubt that our culinary superstars are raising genuine awareness about fresh and wholesome food and I salute their efforts.

The problem, though, is that school lunch programs are uniquely resistant to fresh and wholesome food. Even before the NSLP, school lunch has been about serving a variety of other agendas: Americanizing immigrants, getting rid of federally subsidized commodity crops, alleviating the hunger pangs of poverty, empowering food corporations—anything that comes with an explicit political payoff. Ever since the first plate of mystery meat was dished out to a hapless student body, school lunch has been about capitalizing on the widespread hunger of millions of captive children to achieve an objective that has nothing to do with nutritional integrity and everything to do with an ulterior motive. Realistically speaking, no amount of intelligence and charisma can overcome this hurdle in our political culture.

Take Alice Waters, the most notable celebrity chef turned lunch reformer in the United States. She has spent much of her charmed career tilting into the windmill of a healthy public school lunch program. In 1995, backed by the Chez Panisse Foundation (named after her famous restaurant), Waters established the Edible Schoolyard Project in a vacant lot near a low-income Berkeley, California, middle school. Students earnestly cultivated organic fruits, vegetables, and eggs, hauled freshly harvested ingredients to the Kitchen Classroom (food miles: two blocks), and prepared elegant school lunches in which they took deserved pride.

school-lunch-2School lunch at Washington-Lee High School, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

By 2004, this concept had evolved into the School Lunch Initiative, a program that removed processed foods from menus in the Berkeley United School District and replaced them with locally sourced whole foods. Waters, who carefully oversaw this expansion, insists that the Berkeley model can be the nation’s model (a claim that her affiliation with Michelle Obama underscores). As for what’s at stake in this vision, she recently wrote in Time, “By radically changing the way we think about feeding our children, we not only change the nutrition of individual children and the diet of all Americans in a generation, we also restore the health of the land — and the essential values of this country.”

I can’t resist noting here that such breathless rhetoric often drives Waters’ colleagues to distraction. Here’s Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and host of the adventure-eating show No Reservations, in a 2009 interview:

Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me. We’re all in the middle of a recession, like we’re all going to start buying expensive organic food and running to the green market. There’s something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic.

That’s fun copy, but not really fair. The underlying problem with trying to revolutionize the school lunch program in order to promote healthy eating isn’t that doing so is precious or even too expensive; it’s that school lunch is inherently political—much in the way that every historical attempt to shape school lunch has been inherently political. Waters’ goal might seem perfectly guileless: She wants school kids to eat authentic food. But in the cultural wars that rage over food and choice and government, there’s nothing guileless about lunch or authenticity.

Ever since the first plate of mystery meat was dished out, school lunch has been about capitalizing on the widespread hunger of millions of captive children to achieve an objective that has nothing to do with nutritional integrity.

Under more rational circumstances it would be otherwise. Under more rational circumstances public school kids would eat fresh and wholesome food and people would just stop it with all the blathering about choice. Real food would win. But the United States has become a country where—in the name of freedom and choice—citizenry with rifles strapped to their backs buy authentic Cheez Whiz at Target. In other words, in our knee-jerking anti-government cultural ecosystem, Waters’ top-down, foodie-infused mission is destined to become political hash in the halls of guvmint—be it local, state, or federal. Despite her many accomplishments, Waters is discovering, as did a century of lunch reformers before her, a sobering axiom about life at the intersection of food and public school: Food is never about food.

The most recent evidence of this sad political reality is the Health and Hunger-Free Act of 2010—the legislative outcome of intense lobbying by Waters and the first lady to require school lunches to downsize and include healthier options. It’s a great law. Currently, though, it’s being summarily gutted by a coalition of interests (including, in some cases, students themselves, who are now writing petitions saying that the food is too healthy to taste good) to advance the agenda du jour: freedom to choose. School lunch is now exploited to champion the politics of choice and decry the federal tyranny of “Michelle Obama’s lunch regulations.” It’s only in this pseudo-paranoid ideological atmosphere—one in which the specter of “food paternalism” hovers like Big Brother wielding a spatula—that an organization such as the School Nutrition Association, under pressure from food corporations, could withdraw support for Obama-backed reforms, as it abruptly did last month.

Waters’ dream is a noble one. She wants to teach kids healthy eating habits. But her decision to pursue that dream through the largest food-related welfare program in the country holds it hostage to a cynical past that refuses to compromise. Powerful interest groups across the spectrum have routinely co-opted the ongoing efforts of food reformers to advance some of the 20th century’s most ambitious political agendas. Our ongoing effort to teach kids healthy eating habits isn’t the problem. Trying to do so through the school lunch menu undoubtedly is.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

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