Stimulus and National School Lunch Program

By Steven Gdula

Many schools across the country recently closed their doors to observe a weeklong Spring Break. The closing of the schools, however, also meant the closing of the cafeterias. Studies consistently show that the meals served in the lunchrooms of our public schools are the only meals needy students are guaranteed to receive on a regular basis. With the extended summer vacation quickly approaching, many children will again be without regular meals until classes resume in the fall. Some schools offer the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) in their communities, providing breakfast and lunch to eligible students during the period when school is out of session. But a study undertaken by the USDA has shown that nearly 50% of the foods offered are wasted and never eaten. The reason? Some of the foods served, regardless of their health benefits, are not appealing to children. The thinking that hungry children would eat if only the foods were available isn’t necessarily true.

Addressing the problem of providing proper, affordable nutrition within the public school system has troubled presidential administrations just as it has challenged child nutrition advocates. Nixon is credited with increasing funds for free school lunches for the needy, creating a different type of “no child left behind” policy, whereas Sen. McGovern lobbied for privatizing the meals. According to Susan Levine’s book, School Lunch Politics, (Princeton University Press) McGovern’s hope was that by involving corporate food giants, students could be fed in a more economical way. Critics now blame this approach for have allowed vending machines and fast-food companies to establish a strong presence in America’s schools.

Now the focus among school lunch advocates is to provide affordable, nutritious meals that are locally grown—as local as on the school’s grounds in some cases—to promote a healthier attitude toward food. Activists and parents are calling for the ousting of food corporations with agribusiness ties in favor of sustainable foods in our school’s cafeterias (and I’ve been one of them.) But in this call to switch to organic foods and school-grown gardens, the issue that only gets occasionally mentioned is this: Kids are picky eaters. First Lady Michelle Obama gets points for saying, without hesitation, that sometimes her daughters look at the vegetables on their plate and recoil, “It’s green!”

What all of this says is that you can lead a child to the breakfast, lunch or dinner table, but you can’t make them eat. As inspiring as it is to see the professional chefs like the Food Network’s Tyler Florence or internet sensation Chef Ann working to create healthy, affordable meals for our school children, maybe we’re asking the wrong people for help.

If child’s distaste for foods that are good for them overrides their own hunger, as evidenced by the waste in the USDA’s own study, why not give a new task to the people who made fast foods and junk foods so appealing to kids in the first place?

Advertisers, marketers, and no doubt research analysts, have spent countless dollars and just as many hours figuring out how to sell kids on sweetened cereals, impossibly hued soft drinks, and fat-laden snacks. That they’ve done this and have managed to make these foods so affordable—and have turned a profit—speaks to their skills.

Can’t we turn to these same minds now to work with nutritionists and chefs to help our students to view fresh, healthy foods in a new way? If it’s true that we eat first with our eyes, is there a way to give fruits, vegetables and low-fat foods an image makeover? Can’t we ask the people who caused the childhood obesity problem to help right it? If Wall Street is being held accountable for the mess they made, why isn’t Madison Avenue?

This might sound glib, but think about the effectiveness of School House Rock, the Saturday morning tutorials that ABC aired between cartoons in the 1970s. I’d be willing to bet that simply saying “Conjunction Junction” to Late Boomers and Early Gen Xers will elicit a response of “What’s your function?” even today. Could a “School Lunch Rap” change the way kids think about food now?

Calling for a sit-down between organic healthy food advocates and marketers and manufacturers of fast, or processed foods isn’t as unthinkable or incongruent of an idea as it might seem. Considering that the name attached to the most enduring school lunch program, Richard Russell, belongs to that of a “staunch segregationist,” according to Levine, it’s not impossible to imagine social or political opposites reaching out to one another to work toward feeding our children safely and healthily. If we expect those in our government to reach across the aisle, we in the private sector could start by extending a hand across the table.

Steven Gdula is a writer in San Francisco, Calif.

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2009

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