Decisions about what American children should eat and who should pay for their meals have been made by policy makers since the National School Lunch Act was passed in 1946. The act promised to tackle long-standing concerns surrounding nutrition, poverty and child-welfare by providing low-cost, stigma-free lunches to eligible children (that’s 31 million students today) through cash subsidies for participating public schools. But political interests have guided the National School Lunch Program since its inception — it was originally more closely connected to national agriculture than to welfare — and its nutritional guidelines have been criticized for just as long. A corn dog, a carton of milk, and a can of fruit currently make the grade as an acceptable meal.
As writers, public figures and scientists have increasingly drawn national attention to the connections between food, health and the environment, along with raising the profile of sustainable agriculture, the nourishment provided in schools has come under closer scrutiny. In recent years, fed-up school boards, celebrity chefs, and public figures (see Michelle Obama) have worked to herald in school lunch change. Such attention underscores the notions that health and welfare are often beyond the control of individuals and that structures can effect change —ideologies that support the existence of good regulation and strong federal nutrition programs.
Around the country this week, nutrition experts, sustainable food advocates, food security activists and concerned others await Congress’ decision on the Child Nutrition Bill, a bipartisan effort that aims to reduce childhood hunger and obesity by strengthening child nutrition programs and improving access to healthy food both in and out of school. The reauthorization of the current law, which expires on September 30, would set new nutrition guidelines, improve the healthiness of school meals and provide the first non-inflation-related increase in reimbursement (six cents) for each school lunch served under the National School Lunch Program since 1973.
The Senate has voted on and approved the $4.5 billion for its version of the bill, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Many believe the House will vote to support this initiative in lieu of its own $8 billion proposal, despite concerns that funding for the Senate’s Act is siphoned directly from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. This attempt at federal nutrition reform, thus, may come at the price of food stamp benefits for millions of Americans, a price that anti-hunger advocates argue would increase poverty and encourage the purchase of nutritionally inadequate yet inexpensive calories. This failure to find a viable economic solution for an initiative with widespread support suggests Congress’ votes are well-intentioned but short-sighted, and risks dividing the diverse advocacy groups who have a mutual interest in improving access to healthy food.
Some school districts around the country have demonstrated that child nutrition can be improved without national legislative reform. In our own New Haven, a city in which many neighborhoods have no access to a grocery store, 80 percent of children qualify for free or subsidized government lunch. During the fall of 2008, the city kicked catering conglomerate Aramark out of its public schools and hired chef Tim Cipriano as a replacement executive director of food services. The ambitious move from working with a corporation criticized for both its food quality and its labor practices to employing a self-proclaimed “locavore” made news and suggested that cities could redefine school lunch with fresh food and flavorful, seasonal meals.
But such efforts have been few and far between. New Haven has been successful due to the initiative, logistical planning, and vision of a select and dedicated group. In the absence of similar bodies in school districts around the country, such efforts to improve child nutrition will remain anomalies. Ultimately, we will need a national plan that guarantees access to healthy and affordable food to children in the U.S. Let’s hope Congress finds a way to do that this week.