The percentage of obese children in the United States today has more than doubled since 1970. More than 35 percent of the nation’s children are overweight, 25 percent are obese, and 14 percent have type 2 diabetes, a condition previously seen primarily in adults. At the dawn of the 21st century, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that, of the children born in 2000, roughly one-third of all whites and half of all Hispanics and African Americans will develop diabetes in their lifetimes—most before they graduate from high school. At this rate, the CDC also reports, this group will be the first generation in U.S. history to die at a younger age than their parents. Processed foods favored by schools and busy moms for their convenience not only contribute to obesity; they also contain additives and preservatives and are tainted with herbicide and pesticide residues that are believed to cause a variety of illnesses, including cancer. In fact, current research shows that 40 percent of all cancers are attributable to diet. Many hundreds of thousands of Americans die of diet-related illness each year. People in the United States today simply do not know how to eat properly, and they do not seem to have time to figure out how, so fast food, home meal replacements, and processed foods take the place of good, healthy cooking.
II. History of School Lunch
III. Local Initiatives
IV. Legal Reforms
Parents, pediatricians, and school administrators are increasingly concerned about children’s health as it relates to diet. Most parents do not know what constitutes good childhood nutrition, and many feel they lack the time they would need to spend researching it. They rely, instead, on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)– approved National School Lunch program to provide their children with nutritionally balanced, healthful meals. The trouble is, the program alone cannot and is not doing so. While most schools continue to try to meet better nutritional guidelines, they are still not measuring up, and many are actually contributing to the crisis emerging over the last decade. Food is not respected; rather, it is something that must be made and consumed with increasing speed. In part, this is the result of the fact that there are more children than ever in schools with smaller cafeterias (often actually multipurpose rooms), forcing several short lunch shifts. Decreasing budgets, in many cases, have caused a decline in the quality of school meals.
For the most part, school lunch has deteriorated to institutional-style mayhem. Walk through the kitchen or lunchroom of almost any public or private school and “fast food nation” will ring with striking clarity. USDA-approved portions of processed foods are haphazardly dished out by harried cafeteria workers to frenzied students hurrying to finish their food in time for 10 minutes of recess. Nothing about the experience of being in a school cafeteria is calm—the din is deafening. Lunchrooms are vast open spaces filled with long tables flanked by dozens of chairs. There is no intimacy, no sense of calm, no respite from a morning of hard learning.
The noise and activity levels are not the only unpalatable aspects of lunchroom dining. A full 78 percent of the schools in the United States do not meet the USDA’s nutritional guidelines, which is no surprise considering the fact that most schools keep the cost of the food for lunch under $1 per child. Also not surprisingly, children do not like the foods that are being served. A recent survey of local school children in northern Minnesota revealed the food is so abysmal that not even old standby favorites like cafeteria pizza and macaroni and cheese were given high marks. It is no wonder that kids are choosing fast foods, which are chemically engineered in many cases to be better tasting, over regular school lunch menu items. Children today are bombarded with food advertising that is reinforced by the careful placement of fast food chains in strip malls, nearby schools, and even on public school campuses. The big fast food chains have been aggressively and specifically targeting children for decades—they have even found ways to get inside schools and be part of the public school lunch menus. A mother from Aurora, Colorado, told the present authors that there is one Taco Bell and one Pizza Hut option available on every menu in her six-year-old son’s lunchroom. She was told that the fast food program originally started as a “safety measure” to keep the high school and middle school students on school grounds, because, despite the fact that they had a closed campus, students were crossing busy streets to get to fast food restaurants near their schools. She thought “the fast food thing just trickled down to the elementary program.” Of course the reality is that those schools were, and are, making money from million-dollar multiyear contracts with fast food companies.
School lunch menus have undergone some changes in recent years and are marginally improved, but nearly all schools continue to operate under the misguided notion that children prefer to eat frozen, processed, fried, sugary foods. Because most parents do not have time to spend in the kitchen the way the parents of generations past once did, the lunch lessons children are getting in school are the primary guideposts available to them. Poor in-school health and nutrition education is causing children and, by extension, their families to make bad food choices that are translating directly into big health problems—over $200 billion in health problems annually, in fact. Today, many parents, administrators, and concerned citizens are fighting to get fast food out of the nation’s lunchrooms and improve the quality of school lunches from nutritional content all the way to the atmosphere in cafeterias. They believe that the tax money allocated to fund school lunches, which totals about $7 billion annually ($3 billion less than what was spent per month on the Iraq War), should be put to better use.
History of School Lunch
Most people assume that the school lunch program is a modern U.S. initiative. Not so. The very first school lunch program was started in Europe in the 1700s after teachers noticed that poor, malnourished children were having more difficulty concentrating than their well-fed classmates. Even more than three centuries ago, the ill effects of poor nutrition on health and education were so abundantly clear that they could not be ignored. The earliest programs were funded through the efforts of private charities with the humble goal of providing the most nutritious meals at the lowest possible cost—hallmarks that remain part of school lunch programs around the world today. When philanthropies could no longer support the needs of their communities, local and national governments stepped in to help. Parents were relieved to know that not only were their children being fed, but school attendance was soaring. At the same time, governments were able to almost guarantee themselves a larger number of healthier men to enlist in the armed services. From the beginning, the primary motivating factors behind school food programs were both charitable and political. The first U.S. school food programs, which started decades later, were no exception to this rule.
Major cities were among the first to put school food programs in place. Ellen H. Richards, home economics pioneer and the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was a strong proponent not only for school meals but also for in-school nutrition education. During her tenure at as a professor at MIT, Richards spearheaded an effort to establish a Women’s Laboratory and was successful in persuading the Women’s Education Association of Boston to provide funding. Out of her work at the Women’s Laboratory, Richards gathered research for several published works, two of which were The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning (1882; with Marion Talbot) and Food Materials and Their Adulterations (1885). In 1890, she helped open the New England Kitchen, whose purpose was to provide nutritious yet inexpensive food to working-class families in Boston while teaching them the principles of producing healthy, low-cost meals. Four years later, the Boston School Committee began receiving meals from the New England Kitchen, and Richards had almost single-handedly laid the foundation for a model of what was to eventually become the National School Lunch Program.
Philadelphia’s first penny lunch program, organized and run by a private charity, also began in 1894, and its most significant contribution to today’s school lunch program was the creation of the Lunch Committee of the Home and School League, the precursor to the modern-day Parent Teacher Association (PTA), which was instrumental in expanding the lunch program to nine other area schools.
About a decade later, in New York, Robert Hunter published Poverty, in which he made the assertion that between 60,000 and 70,000 children in New York City arrived at school with empty stomachs. It prompted a firestorm of investigative reports, including John Spargo’s The Bitter Cry of the Children, published in 1906. In his book, Spargo supported Hunter’s claims and urged society at large to take action on behalf of the children. Spargo’s work in turn spurred further studies by physicians who began publishing reports about the malnutrition of New York City schoolchildren, which later led to a plea from the superintendent of New York City schools, William Maxwell, for a school lunch program where children could purchase healthy low-cost lunches every day. Maxwell’s wishes were granted, and two schools were elected to participate in a trial run. Their success was undeniable, and two years later the New York City School Board approved the program and opened the door for a citywide school lunch program overseen by physicians with an eye toward honoring the ethnic and cultural traditions of the various school populations. Not surprisingly, the overall health of New York City’s schoolchildren showed improvement very quickly. Ten years later, 17 public schools were participating in the program, and the first food safety measures, which included physical exams for food handlers as well as small pox vaccines, were established. As school lunch programs gained recognition and enjoyed greater successes, they began to pop up in towns and cities all over the country. Before the start of World War I, 13 states and Washington, DC, had some type of school food program in place.
As the war began, the school lunch program was expanded, due in no small part to the fact that approximately one-third of all young men attempting to enlist were turned away because of diseases attributable to malnutrition. At that time, the programs were still generally funded and operated by private charities, but when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, private charities and individuals could no longer support school feeding programs, and hunger in the United States became more widespread. It was clear that the federal government would have to step in, both to combat hunger and to create much-needed jobs.
People were hungry, not because there was no food available but because they did not have the money to buy it, and, as a result, U.S. farmers were left with enormous agricultural surpluses and were in danger of losing their farms. In an effort to both assist farmers by purchasing their products and feed needy families and schoolchildren using agricultural surpluses, the Congress passed the Agricultural Act of 1935, Public Law 320, which required the cooperation of federal, state, and local governments to implement and establish a structure upon which future commodity distributions programs were built.
During this time, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was organized to provide work on public projects to the unemployed, and school lunches were a perfect fit for the program. Not only did WPA workers cook and serve lunches, but they canned the fresh fruits and vegetables provided to them through the surplus program and through school gardens. Until that time, nothing had a greater impact on the National School Lunch Program than the WPA. By 1941, school lunches were being served by the WPA in every state to a total of about 2 million schoolchildren. The program was also responsible for employing more than 64,000 people in school lunch programs at that time. Just one year later, 6 million children were participating.
Unfortunately, with the onset of World War II, the school lunch program took a hit as surpluses were redirected to feed troops, but in 1943, Congress amended the Agricultural Act of 1935 to “provide school districts directly with funds for implementation of their school lunch programs.”
At war’s end General Lewis Blaine Hershey, director of Selective Services, declared that malnutrition was a national security risk and stated before Congress that the United States had 155,000 war casualties directly related to malnutrition. It became clear that strong federal legislation was necessary, and in the summer of 1946, the National School Lunch Act, Public Law 396, 79th Congress, was signed by President Harry S. Truman. The new law specified permanent funding through the Secretary of Agriculture “to assist with the health of the nation’s children, and ensure a market for farmers” (USDA 1946). Section Two of the law states the purpose of the act:
-It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in-aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of foods and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation, and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs. (USDA 1946, 231)
With the passing of PL 396, the National School Lunch Program was given an unshakable foundation. The guidelines for administration of school lunch programs under PL 396 include:
1. Lunches must meet minimum nutritional requirements set by the Secretary of Agriculture.
2. Free or reduced-cost meals must be made available to children whom local authorities determine unable to pay.
3. Discrimination against children unable to pay is forbidden.
4. The program must be operated on a nonprofit basis.
5. Foods designated by the secretary as abundant must be utilized.
6. Donated commodity foods must be utilized.
7. Records, receipts, and expenditures must be kept and submitted in a report to the state agency when required.
Funds were also specifically set aside for the purchase of equipment so that money given to schools for food would be used only to purchase food. In 1954, the Special Milk Program was set in place, making surplus milk available to schools in much the same way as other surplus agricultural foods had previously been made part of the program.
Between 1955 and 1966, a decline in nutritional intake was reported by the Household Food Consumption Survey of 1965–1966 and resulted in the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, Public Law 89–642, allowing for increased funding to create programs whose sole purpose was to improve child nutrition. The Special Milk Program became part of the Child Nutrition Act, and through the Child Nutrition Act schools were provided nonfood assistance, which made funds available for the purchase of equipment as long as schools were able to cover 25 percent of their equipment costs. In 1966, a pilot breakfast program was given a two-year test run, and allowances were made for hiring more employees to run the school food programs. It was at this point that all school food programs, including those created for preschool children, were placed under the aegis of one federal agency, standardizing the management of school lunch programs across the country.
In the 1970s, nutritionists began taking a closer look at school meals and criticized the program for not taking into account students of different ages and body types. The same meals were being served to all students—athletes, obese children, undernourished kids, first-graders, and high school students alike. They also looked at sugar and fat content and questioned the general healthfulness of school lunches. It was at this time that nutritionists first began to look to the National School Lunch Program as a tool for educating children about good nutrition, and, in 1979, school districts were required to include children and parents in their school food programs, making them participants in the overall eating experience—from taste tests to menu planning and cafeteria design. After a decade of discussion on the subject of the healthfulness of school meals, new regulations were put in place that, among other things, included a provision that required different portion sizes for children of different age groups.
Also in the 1970s, vending machines made their appearance in public schools. There was some immediate concern on the part of parents and educators about the types of products being sold, and, as a result, the Secretary of Agriculture issued regulations in 1980 restricting the sale of sodas, gum, and certain types of candy. Unfortunately, the regulations were overturned in a 1984 lawsuit brought by the National Soft Drink Association. The judge presiding over the case stated that the Secretary of Agriculture had acted outside the bounds of his authority and was permitted only to regulate food sales within the cafeteria. So, although they were not allowed in cafeterias, vending machines once again found their way onto public school campuses around the country.
The 1980s were a time of great strain on the school lunch program. The Reagan administration forced budget cuts, causing meal prices to rise and some children to drop out of the program altogether. In an effort to save money and still appear to be meeting the federal guidelines for a healthy school lunch, the government made attempts to add certain foods to the “permissible” list. The one that made the most people sit up and take notice was the shocking allowance of ketchup as a vegetable. Also during the 1980s, many schools were forced to create noncooking kitchens, which, by default, increased the quantity of processed foods being served.
By the time President Bill Clinton took office, the USDA was still falling well short of meeting its own dietary guidelines in the public school system, which was not surprising in a program that for decades had been running on agricultural surpluses like milk, cheese, and high-fat meat products. As a matter of fact, the fat content of school lunches was well above recommended dietary guidelines, and meals were falling well short of students’ needed nutrient values. Ellen Haas was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in charge of Food and Consumer Affairs, and it became her job to oversee the National School Lunch Program. Haas and Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, held a series of national hearings that were open to both experts and concerned citizens and put together their School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children in the summer of 1994. It required that schools meet USDA Federal Dietary Guidelines by 1998. The directive that an average of 30 percent or less of the week’s calorie count come from fat (and only 10 percent from saturated fat) angered the major players in the meat and dairy industries who had been particularly reliant upon the school food program to take their surpluses. Nevertheless, Haas pushed forward, making her School Meals Initiative the first substantial revision to the National School Lunch Program in nearly 50 years. The hallmark of Haas’s program was ease of implementation through the reduction of bureaucratic red tape.
Despite the fact that Haas’s proposal became a federal mandate in 1994, more than a decade later, schools still struggled to meet its demands. Poultry, soy (incidentally, both tofu and soy milk are not considered part of a reimbursable meal), and a greater variety of fruits and vegetables were designated as permissible by the USDA, but fat content was down by only 4 percent and remained at about 34 percent on average. And while 70 percent of all elementary schools met government mandated nutrient guidelines, only 20 percent of secondary schools had been able to do so. To make matters worse, more snacks were being offered at school than ever before, and fast food chains were inching their way into the school system. Cash-poor schools looked to school snacks and fast food to help raise money for, among other things, extracurricular programs. Today, most schools still have no nutrition curriculum, and those that do use heavily biased educational materials donated by the meat and dairy industries. Students are being bombarded with an overwhelming amount of extremely persuasive advertising for high-fat, low-nutrient foods every day. In fact, food companies spend approximately $30 billion to underwrite about 40,000 commercials annually. It is nearly impossible for the National School Lunch Program to come out ahead, no matter how nutritious the meals become, if fast foods are among the choices in the lunchroom. When presented at school with a choice between a familiar Taco Bell selection and school cafeteria mystery meat, it is a no-brainer what most students will choose.
School meals reach nearly 27 million children each day; for some, what they eat at school is the most nutritious meal of their day, which is great news. Still, the childhood obesity crisis is at an all-time high. Children are getting fatter and fatter—in fact, nearly 20 percent of all U.S. children are considered obese by today’s standards.
Some school districts, like Berkeley Unified School District in Berkeley, California, have found ways to work within the national guidelines while supporting an innovative interdisciplinary gardening and nutrition program that directly involves children in growing and cooking their own food, in conjunction with serving nutritious and delicious food in the cafeterias. Other schools have raised money for salad bars, and many school districts around the country have banned soda and vending machines. Private and charter schools like the Ross School on Long Island and Promise Academy in New York City are creating school food programs that are making their way, in bits and pieces, into the country’s federally funded school lunch program. Progress is being made, but it is slow.
In 2006, through the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, the federal government mandated that each school district form a Wellness Committee and draft a Wellness Policy to establish standards for nutrition and good health in the public school system. The policies were required to address the quality of meals, regularity of exercise, and nutrition education. Unfortunately, there is no real national standard, nor is there any significant funding available to help school food administrators implement their plans. Parents and administrators continue to express their frustration, and educators on the front line continue to ask why the National School Lunch Program is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose primary purpose is to support the nation’s farms through subsidy programs that require public schools to utilize high-fat, highly processed foods that are contraindicative to good nutrition. In 2007, at the behest of Congress, a committee made up of experts from the Centers for Disease Control and the Institute of Medicine compiled a comprehensive report on nutrition standards for foods in schools. As of mid-2010, however, most of its recommendations had yet to be acted upon in any systematic way, even while a growing number of individual school districts had instituted measures aimed at improvement.
Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes
- Committee on Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools, Nutrition Standards for Foods in Schools: Leading the Way toward Healthier Youth. New York: National Academies Press, 2007.
- Cooper, Ann, and Lisa M. Holmes, Bitter Harvest. New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Cooper, Ann, and Lisa M. Holmes, Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
- Levine, Susan, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.
- Pollan, Michael, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.
- Poppendieck, Janet, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
- Schlosser, Eric, Fast Food Nation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.
- USDA, National School Lunch Act, 79 P.L. 396, 60 Stat. 230. 1946.