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School lunch program under renewed spotlight

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More than 30 million kids line up in their school cafeterias, Monday through Friday, trays in hand, for a federally subsidized lunch. School lunches are notorious for being bland, dry and unappetizing — but how did they get this way?

Filmmakers Ernie Park and Michael Graziano set out to answer this question in their new documentary, “Lunch Line,” which traces the historical roots and current shortcomings with the federal school lunch program.

Screened earlier this month as part of the Museum of Science’s “Let’s Talk About Food” series, “Lunch Line” sheds light on one of the nation’s most successful — and controversial — social programs.

As the film explains, the federal school lunch program had its roots in the Great Depression, when agriculture prices plummeted and the number of hungry children soared. To stabilize food prices, the government bought surpluses from farmers and redistributed the items to the poor. This process became the basis for contemporary food assistance programs.

By 1946, President Harry Truman signed legislation for the school lunch program with the backing of Congressional liberals and conservatives. But the New Deal Democrats and segregationist Republicans behind the program struck an interesting compromise. Fearing federal intrusion into Southern segregated schools, the program would be housed in the Department of Agriculture instead of the Department of Education.

The program fell under the radar for a few decades, leaving many poor children without free meals, but when poverty and racism took center stage on the national agenda in the 1960s, school lunches again became a topic of conversation. In 1969, President Richard Nixon signed a bill expanding funding for free lunches, increasing the budget more than any other president before him. But he did not raise the overall budget, meaning individual schools suddenly had to bear greater overhead kitchen and labor costs to comply with the ordinance to feed all poor children. Soon, the program was hit with budget concerns and calls for cutbacks.

Park and Graziano, whose own memories of school lunch include a “meatloaf that was incomprehensible,” explained in an interview with the School Library Journal that it was this fascinating history that drew them to tell the story of school lunch. “I had the popular idea that it is a horrible and awful program,” Park said. “But if you look at the history, there’s an achievement and an alliance that was hard to overcome.”

Added Graziano, “Segregationist senators from agricultural states and New Deal politicians were willing to come together, compromise, and create alliances that helped farmers and kids.”

Today, 22.5 percent of all kids  — 16.7 million — are living in food insecure households, a USDA term for hungry, and the federal school lunch program offers that important link between hungry children and the food they need. But as impressive as the alliance was to overcome childhood hunger, the duo’s film also depicts the troubling problems of the school lunch program.  

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a University of Chicago researcher featured in the film, conducted a study demonstrating that students who eat school lunches are more likely to be overweight or obese than their peers who eat lunches from home. Even when controlled for background factors like socio-economic status and race, the results remained the same — school lunch leads to extra pounds.

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.”