The Hard Truth About School Lunches:
America’s Chicken Nuggets Come Home To Roost

A few weeks ago our collective Facebook news feeds exploded with pictures, now known to be false, of school lunches around the world compared to (what we assumed would be pitiful before we even clicked on it) their American counterpart. Despite the fact that on the face of it those pictures were impossible representations (do we really believe that even French children get a half-pound of Brie on their lunch trays? Or that children in the disastrously impoverished nation of Greece regularly receive those gorgeous stuffed grape leaves with pomegranate seeds and Greek yogurt?) we were exasperated and furious, our outrage as predictable as the setting sun.

Why? Because bad American school lunches are a perennial punching bag, an easy joke that we’ve been making for decades. And since the issue has become first lady Michelle Obama’s pet project it’s become a political one as well, her efforts to reduce the fat and sodium content and increase the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables that we offer to our nation’s children somehow a red and blue issue, a mark of an elitist and out of touch liberal agenda.

When I first saw those pictures my first thought was “Yeah, that food is beautiful.” My second thought was “Where can I get that?” Where can I, an adult with money in my pocket and a car in the driveway, get that food on a daily basis to feed my adult self in my reasonably sized city in a not-remote part of the country? The answer: almost nowhere. Because that’s not how food in America works. I mean, yes, we do have a Fresh Market now and even Kroger carries a fair selection of organic goods but realistically most of that is not very affordable. Also, none of that is simple to create if you don’t have the knowledge to prepare it. So in looking at my Facebook feed at all of the people posting up these pictures along with the general sentiment of “Shame…” I wondered, what did they eat today? Did these grownups with agency and means all eat food that looks like that?

I mean, yes, probably in the last couple of weeks they’ve had meals that looked like that and probably some of them can afford it on a more regular basis but realistically the majority of the people who were so saddened by the reality of our school lunch system have somehow detached themselves from the truth that even outside of school our food has serious problems. How does this work? How have we allowed our public schools to exclusively carry the burden of how we eat as Americans when we know that the majority of Americans who have the ability to choose are not even choosing well? And beyond that, knowing that even if we do know how to choose well we are trapped in a food system that by design gives us the crummiest options? Every major international food chain serves higher quality versions of the same food we regularly eat to other countries with fresher ingredients, fewer additives, and in some cases zero GMO’s. It is the American way of doing business because it is what makes companies the most money and for the most part Americans don’t seem to notice.

This morning John Hoeven (R-N.D.) introduced a bill on the floor of the senate that would loosen federal regulations of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and roll back restrictions on sodium and the inclusion of whole grains. This, just a week after that post of photos comparing school lunches gained traction on conservative sites like The Conservative Tribune exclusively blaming Michelle Obama for the “sorry state” of our school lunch program. This, just a couple of months after the sarcastic #ThanksMichelleObama hashtag went viral as young people around the country posted pictures of their less than satisfying school lunches on twitter, never mind the fact that the details of what actually goes into school lunches is a decision made at the division level and not the federal level. Getting less media attention of course were those who were genuine in their praise for Mrs. Obama like Hartford Connecticut’s school division which posted gorgeous photos of their own school lunch options. The lesson: if you don’t like what’s being served in your kid’s school, maybe you need to stop voting for republicans who hate public education and start going to some school board meetings.

Having attended my own fair share of school board meetings as well as School Health Advisory Board meetings I know how wildly complicated school nutrition guidelines are. It is a tricky puzzle of fat, sodium, starch, and sugar levels, which must be considered in the context of product availability, ease of assembly, value, and taste. Combine that with the finicky nature of a generation of children, the majority of whom have taste bud preferences for much sweeter and saltier food than even a decade ago, and you realize the complicated math involved in producing meals that are not only nutritious but that will also be eaten.

We long ago disassembled kitchens in the majority of our school buildings that allowed us to prepare complex meals from scratch. The days of the lunch ladies hunched over their soup pots are a distant memory, a relic of the pre-Reagan administration days before the Federal School Lunch Program was gutted and ketchup and pickle relish were reclassified as acceptable vegetable substitutes. Taken together with vanishing wages for these crucial employees and you have a staffing challenge of filling our school houses with people who not only know how to prepare fresh meals in kitchens that often don’t have stoves but who are also willing to do so for very little money.

So what do we do? First recognize that our public schools are just that: our schools. They are the best reflection of what we value as a community and how they are funded and supported is a mirror of who we are. Second, go to your local school and have lunch. Chances are it’s a lot better than you think it is and hopefully it’s getting better. If it’s not, there are some very concrete things you can do.

1. Learn more about the efforts your own division is making to improve the quality of food in your schools. If it is truly atrocious, find out why. If it is good, tell them how it’s good and have your kid buy school lunch sometimes. (That one’s on you, not Michelle Obama.) 2. Work hard to make sure education is well funded so that the Federal School Lunch Program doesn’t have to sacrifice the quality of the food they provide because of what might seem “cheaper.” 3. Support local community efforts to ensure that all families have access to fresh fruits and vegetables so that children will eat healthy food when they are offered it. 4. Support efforts to fix America’s food supply system as a whole because our school lunch system is a direct reflection of how we eat as Americans.

The reality of our school lunches does not exist in a vacuum and it is crucial that we understand the intricate relationship between funding, American food consumption, powerful food lobbies (the potato lobby actually helped decide the amount of acceptable starches schools can serve), and wages paid to train and retain staff. Since the National School Lunch Act of 1946 established the very first school lunch program as a way to ensure our children were fed well enough to learn, with the added benefit of boosting our domestic agricultural production, the fates of our school children and our nation’s food supply have been inextricably linked. It is long past the time that we reexamine that relationship and take proper ownership of it. The fates of our school children and our nation depend on it.