Sunday, October 9, 2011

To Serve and Defend: School Lunch in the U.S.

This week I started my rotation in food service, working with some local school districts.  Before my rotation started my preceptor told me she likes to have interns read about the history of the National School Lunch Program, so she loaned me a book called School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program. As it turns out, not only was the school lunch program a welfare program providing many students with perhaps their only meal of the day, it was also a matter of national security. While early versions of the program date back to the pre-war era, when America entered world wars I and II it became clear that malnourished children grew up to become malnourished soldiers. Feeding the nation's youth was the best defense. There were concurrent concerns among American farmers about the fluctuating prices of their crops. In a brilliantly flawed move that created a giant conflict of interest and decades of debate, the National School Lunch Program was passed in 1946, and the program was designated under the auspices of the USDA. The Department of Agriculture would use surplus crops and commodities to feed the nation's youth, keeping prices steady and bellies full.  From the onset, the program also had a strong connection to the War Food Administration (and later to the Department of Defense, which it currently relies upon for much of its fresh produce).

Image from The Food Museum's online exhibit  on School Lunch

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."  While reading about the history of the school lunch program I couldn't help but think of the words of Ecclesiastes. Every major issue confronting the program today has been their since its very inception... the surplus commodities, the lack of proper equipment or trained food service workers to prepare nutritious meals, the tensions between running school food service as a business vs. as a public health program. And yet, what is most amazing is how this welfare program has endured despite these deep-rooted flaws.

What once constituted a "good" lunch -
not so different from the current USDA requirements
I would be remiss if I did not also mention the important role of the school lunch program in legitimizing the field of nutrition. Many of the earliest pioneers of the program were women who wanted to seriously pursue science but could not gain access to any advanced programs. Home economics was a "safe" way for women to study and apply the science of nutrition and also provided women with a point of entry into government jobs. The program also contributed to the standardization of the American diet - for better or worse.

The National School Lunch Program is "arguably the most regulated, thought-about, fought-over and highly planned meal in America."  There are so many competing interests and considerations, from cost to labor to reimbursement requirements to dietary guidelines to picky eaters, not to mention the regulations at the federal and state level and from the Department of Health as well. Furthermore, I find this ongoing connection to the DoD, with nutrition and war somehow becoming inextricably linked at once fascinating and troubling. I don't know if a month's time is enough for me to learn the ins and outs of this absurdly complicated program but it's an exciting time to be working in the field and to gain greater insight into the challenges of school lunch.


  1. Anonymous has good taste in movies :)

  2. Hey Rebecca - Eli pointed be to your blog. Very interesting! Having worked in public schools in Chicago for 10 years, I've seen way too many school lunches... but didn't know the national defense connection.

    The Black Panthers actually started a free breakfast program in the 60s, which was adopted by the federal government soon after. (It was one of my professor's favorite examples of hegemony back in college...)

    Anyways, thanks for sharing. Hope all is well.