The School Lunch Bureaucracy, Unraveled
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Early in Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, author Janet Poppendieck quotes former Texas Secretary of Agriculture Susan Coombs, who famously declared that “it will take 2 million angry moms to change school food.”
Based on what we now know of the dreary state of our children’s cafeteria fare, there must be at least that many mamas, as well as a good number of papas, who are ready to storm the barricades. Fortunately for them and America’s 55 million students, they’ve been joined by Poppendieck, a sociologist at Hunter College, who gives us the best reasons yet for unconditional school food reform.
We are already indebted to Poppendieck for her earlier works Knee Deep in Breadlines and Sweet Charity, where she employed her sleuthing skills to unravel the historical contradictions and compounding irrationalities associated with feeding our nation’s neediest citizens. As she did then, Poppendieck combines her talents as historian and sociologist with those of an institutional psychologist to help us get in touch with our nation’s school food neurosis.
Why, for instance, have we developed three different ways to pay the lunch lady -- one for the poor students, one for the nearly poor, and one for those who supposedly drive BMWs to school? The logical answer might be because that’s fair; the rich kids should pay more and the government should subsidize the cost of feeding lower income children, as it currently does to the tune of $11 billion annually. But as Poppendieck peels back the layers of the onion, we find the issue has always been less about compassion for needy children and more about accommodating political and commercial interests. Harry Truman (school lunch is good for national security), Ronald Reagan (ketchup is a vegetable), nutritionists (it's nutrients that count, not the quality and taste of food), and various agricultural lobbies wanting to unload their farm surpluses are just a sampling of the agendas that have driven the school food agenda. Somewhere low on the totem pole, you’ll find concern for the health and well-being of boys and girls.
Like any parent, I love to regale my own children with tales of the good old days. I tell them about my high school cafeteria, which had exactly one vending machine in the 1960s: a mechanically operated metal box that dispensed an uncut, unpackaged, and unadorned fresh apple for 25 cents. Far from feeling deprived (my children asked me if my school was the same one attended by Abe Lincoln), we were a healthy and reasonably bright group of young people. But today, vending machines (I once counted 51 in just one Albuquerque, New Mexico high school) are as ubiquitous as dog droppings in the melting snow. What has happened during the intervening decades?
Poppendieck’s jargon-free narrative takes us step-by-step through the deals, concessions, and compromises that have bureaucratized the school food process while simultaneously dumbing down the food. Why is so much processed food used to prepare school meals? Because taxpayers are spending billions to subsidize corn and soybeans, the prime ingredients in processed food, and because “cooking from scratch” kitchens have been removed from the schools. Why do we worry about price when talking about feeding our children? Because the federal government (or anyone else for that matter) will not provide enough funding to enable schools to buy fresh, whole ingredients. Why do we have so many junk food items sold “a la carte” in our schools? Well, using a French culinary phrase to disguise what is otherwise crappy food, schools must sell these items to students with discretionary cash -- supposedly the ones driving the BMWs -- to compensate for the low reimbursements they receive for meals that meet mandated USDA health standards. And on it goes.