Celebrating the History of the School Lunch Program

Part 3

By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.

“We’ve Known since the 1940s that Kids Don’t Do Well in School When They’re Hungry”
William Lambers October 8, 2018

Listen to Children

“The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting-point for all education.” -John Dewey

“I need to knead!” Ariel Demas, 1979

The national school lunch program (NSLP) has a long and often complicated history. It has taken years of political lobbying to make it a federal law which finally happened in 1946. The primary purpose is dual – to help farmers and feed children. How this is done often involves controversy. While the intention to achieve these goals is honorable, the time has come to create a new model and take an honest look at how we can improve, become more sustainable, and not put profits ahead of child welfare.

Currently, 77 % of young people who try to enlist in the military, are rejected due to malnutrition.[2] This malnutrition is the opposite of the reason the school lunch program began – to provide meals during the school day for hungry children. A third of students at that time were malnourished due to lack of food and currently over 3/4 of our students who try to enlist are rejected because they are overfed to the point of obesity or other issues related to excess calories. The implications of this trend present troubling issues for our national security.

While the school lunch program has succeeded in filling the bellies of kids, the foods fed to them have led to an epidemic of diet-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity. The problem today is not that these kids are “half-starved” from not enough food to eat during the school day but rather they are over fed with calorie laden foods often lacking in nutrients and high in fat content. The first revision of the school lunch program after a series of public hearing was to lower the fat content from 40% to 30%, a figure many thought was still too high. USDA held hearings to get a consensus from experts to see if this change was warranted.

When William Clinton was elected to replace George Bush as President there came a change in administration of the school lunch program nationally.  Ellen Haas, founder and former director of the consumer action group, Public Voice, was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Agriculture in charge of Food and Consumer Affairs which oversees the school lunch program.   Haas’s organization, Public Voice had a long record of being critical of the school lunch program because of the program’s high fat content and low nutrient density. 

USDA Nutrition Hearings on School Lunch

Since the USDA had not been successful in meeting their own recommendations for implementing the dietary guidelines for school lunch (USDA: 1994), Haas held a series of hearings in four different regions of the country to listen to more than 350 experts and interested citizens.  She also received written testimony from more than 2,000 people.  Based upon the comments received, Haas proposed to change the laws regulating school lunch, laws that have been on the books since 1946 when the School Lunch Act was first initiated.  Haas and the Secretary of Agriculture announced their School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children in June 1994.  This initiative stated that all American public schools had until 1998 to conform to the dietary guidelines in their school lunch programs.  It required among other things that the average fat content must be 30% or fewer calories from fat over the course of a week.  This announcement created quite a bit of controversy; the Food Service Association, and the meat and dairy industries were upset over the proposed change.  However, groups such as Public Voice that have long been critical of the nutritional quality of school meals, were impatient to see the changes in place.

The same initiative proposed new program regulations for the School Lunch Program.  For the first time in 48 years, the School Lunch Program faced a major legal revision.  The USDA’s School Meal Initiative for Healthy Kids was developed, after a year of input from the public, through hearings, meetings, and roundtable discussions, to determine ways to improve the school lunch program across the nation. The proposals include:

*By the 1998 school year, schools be required to serve meals that meet federal Dietary Guidelines:  no more than 30 percent of calories from fat, and no more than 10 percent from saturated fat. 

*Introduce a new, flexible, easy-to-use system of menu planning that will ensure that every school meal delivers the vitamins, minerals, and food energy that children need. 

*Provide technical help to school food service staffs so they can meet the new standards.

*Teach children about nutrition so that they will choose foods that are good for them.

*Streamline the administration of school meals so that local school food service staffs can concentrate less on bureaucratic red tape and more on providing good food for their students (USDA:  Sept. 1994).

This proposal was first published for public comment in June 1994 and became a federal mandate for all schools participating in the NSLP.

Unfortunately, few schools have been able to meet this mandate in terms of reducing the fat content below 30%, a figure many nutritionists feel is still too high.  At the time of the proposed legislation, school meals nationally averaged 40% fat calories.  Menus generally have changed little, serving the same meat-centered entrees.  Rather than cut way back on animal foods, which are generally high in fat, and contain no fiber, the USDA has proposed that food service workers place cooked hamburger meat under the faucet to “wash away some of the fat calories.”  This approach does not sufficiently reduce the fat and compromises taste.  Meat at the center of the plate is no longer a viable choice, based upon contemporary knowledge about diet and its relationship to chronic disease as well as its contribution to climate change.  There has not been an effective way for the USDA to monitor the amount of fat that is currently in school meals or to deal with some of the issues involved in producing it.  

The mandate for nutrition education has not been effective in getting children to choose healthier foods nor has it been successfully put in place in a meaningful way. Most schools do not have a cohesive nutrition education curriculum in place.  Materials provided for free by the meat and dairy industries are the most widely used “nutrition” education strategies in the classroom.  These materials usually contain an inherent bias.

The USDA cautiously suggested that yogurt and soy might be acceptable protein foods.  Legumes are a commodity food that is naturally low in fat and high in nutrients including protein.  Legumes were not initially mentioned as an acceptable protein but are currently accepted as a plant – based commodity food that meets the protein requirement. 

Schools have allowed a most disturbing trend to occur by outsourcing some of the meals with outside companies like Sodexho, so the meals aren’t cooked onsite and must be delivered to schools. They have also sometimes allowed franchises such as Pizza Hut[3] to deliver meals to schools.  Child health is often compromised when this occurs, and it is short-sighted in terms of costs.  The resulting health care costs down the road will be enormous.  In addition, schools are allowing soda companies to put their vending machine in schools in exchange for funds for athletics. Exclusive contracts are made between the soda company and the school so that soda is readily available to the students.

The Eating Atmosphere of the School

Very little, if any attention in most schools has been given to the eating environment of the school. The cafeteria in most schools is a large room with long rectangular tables and hard seats. The walls are usually painted cinderblocks. This is typically the first opportunity for students to talk to each other as they eat their lunch, and they are usually allowed 15 minutes as the next class is herded through. The kids are anxious to go outside for recess which may or may not come before eating lunch. We need to look at the schedule to see which comes first – eating lunch or going outdoors to play on the playground.

 There are monitors in the cafeteria, some with bullhorns, who circulate and try to keep the noise level down, usually without much success. When I did my Ph.D. research, I brought a decibel meter into the cafeteria and the noise level was equivalent to heavy traffic at rush hour. NY State currently has a law posted when entering a new town that the decibel level of each town must be 90 decibels or below. Clearly most school cafeterias are in violation of this law, and there are no consequences for not complying, however we need to find solutions for a calmer more civilized eating environment.

NY State Law

School Cafeteria

The walls of most school cafeterias are drab, and I view this as a missed opportunity for educating visual learners. In Baltimore we worked with an artist to design murals with the students using their artwork which supported the lesson from Food is Elementary about vitamins using the vital colors of whole foods. This is a fun way for students to remember the lesson, eat for color, and take pride in knowing this is something they helped create.

Food Studies Institute (FSI) has used food and art projects to demonstrate food and agricultural themes so visual learners will have their learning styles celebrated. FSI has developed different creative artistic venues to reinforce the abilities of visual learners and to collaborate with artists in the community. Below are a few examples.