The Future of School Lunch Reform

Please welcome Leah Douglas to Serious Eats. She's a longtime SE reader currently studying at Brown University who has a keen interest in food policy. She'll be dropping by occasionally with her insights into this sphere. —The Mgmt.


[Flickr: chidorian]


Art for the new film Lunchline.

What will I have for lunch? Every day, millions of Americans consider this question. Perhaps a sandwich, or leftovers from last night, or a take-out meal will sustain you.

But if you're a student in one of the country's elementary or high schools, you will probably be stuck with whatever is being served from large metal trays in your cafeteria.

School lunch is currently one of the hot topics in food policy. So much that a new film called Lunch Line, produced by Uji Films, is coming out this spring to emphasize the history and development of the school lunch program.

The film presents a compelling and intense narrative of the behind-the-scenes tensions of school lunch reform. On one side, we see chef Ann Cooper, a trailblazer in school lunch reform, railing against a "flawed" system that should be "blown up". But opponents of reform are also represented, one of whom defends the current standards by emphasizing that "after all, we're feeding millions of people."

This film is extremely timely.

This year, as they do every five years, Congress will vote on the Child Nutrition Women, Infants, and Children Reauthorization Act (CNRA). The CNRA is a large piece of legislation that sets guidelines for several federal nutrition programs, including the School Breakfast Program and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).


[Flickr: Cornell University Library]

The NSLP was first implemented in 1946, when the army reported that many World War II recruits were severely malnourished. At the time, about seven million children came to be covered by the program, and the federally provided subsidy per lunch was about 9¢. Today, over 30 million children participate in the program, and the subsidy has been increased to $2.68.

Many critics claim that this subsidy is far too low to ensure healthy and fresh food for students. Most advocate an increase of at least a dollar per meal, though Alice Waters has pushed for a per-meal subsidy as high as $5 per meal.

There is strong resistance in the government to subsidy increases, which is understandable to an extent—no member of Congress wishes to advocate an increase of billions of dollars in federal spending. But keeping the price down to cut corners means this: 95% of food delivered to school cafeterias is frozen, simply defrosted and served. Indeed, most school kitchens lack the equipment and skilled workers to even cook food at all.

Beyond the meals themselves, Congress must also address poor regulation and oversight of the food served to our children. Between 1998 and 2007, there were more than 470 outbreaks of food-borne illness in schools, nearly all of which were linked to contaminated processed foods supposedly under regulation by the FDA. While this lack of oversight affects the whole population, it is particularly sad that children cannot be protected even in their own school cafeterias.

Congress is set to renew the CNRA in the coming months. With any luck, the efforts of lobbying groups and researchers, and influence of documentaries such as Lunch Line, will yield some real reform to our botched lunch program. Now is the time to act, to make positive changes to the National School Lunch Program. We can only hope that Congress steps up to the challenge.