School lunch program under renewed spotlight

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 3/29/2011, 6:59 p.m.

As other experts in the film explained, some of the program’s basic nutritional guidelines are rooted in Depression-era concerns over malnutrition. Lunches, for instance, have a minimum calorie requirement, but no maximum. These rules mean that schools can serve 2,000 calorie meals without objection, and help explain why serving fresh fruits and vegetables has become such a difficult task.         

In addition, the USDA’s dubious nutritional standards contribute to the unhealthiness of school lunches. Archival footage showed a fierce Congressional debate over the status of ketchup — which the USDA considers a vegetable, even though the condiment is half sugar. “We classified ketchup as a vegetable, but I’m going to tell you something — ketchup is a vegetable!” John Block, former secretary of agriculture under Reagan, recently said for the film. “Ketchup is a tomato.”  

The USDA, the film points out, has a conflict of interest in the school lunch program. The Department was designed to be the marketing and lobbying wing of the agricultural industry, but now it holds the added responsibility of feeding the nation’s children.  

But “Lunch Line” also showed the many ways citizens and activists are fighting back. Woven into school lunch history, the film also followed six high school students from Chicago’s Tilden Academy. The students, all African American, entered the “Cooking Up Change” competition, where they were challenged to cook a meal that exceeded the USDA’s nutritional standards and fell within the average budget for a school meal — one dollar. The students prepared chicken jambalaya, cornbread and cucumber salad. The students won the competition and were awarded with a trip to the White House, where they served their meal to congressional leaders.

“It does apply pressure when kids can show that with a little thoughtfulness, you can serve something healthy and tasteful,” commented Park.

While the Tilden students proved that change is possible, the filmmakers are sure to remind viewers that change will not be easy. “We realized that [the] solution is not easy, and far more complex than ‘Why can’t we just do this?’ ” explained Park. “There are all sorts of compromises that come in —  and politics. Part of the popular thought is that this should be easy, and someone must be doing something so wrong. Yet this is not easy.”