Currently, the government subsidizes schools to provide free lunches for some, reduced-price lunches for others, and lunches at “full price” for the rest (“full price” is in quotes because these lunches are also government-subsidized). A writer I greatly admire, Janet Poppendieck, argues in her book, Free for All, that lunches should be free for all children. Why? We make desks and textbooks free to all children in this country – not just the poor ones – because we recognize that without them, kids can’t learn. The current system stigmatizes the kids who can’t afford lunch, leading many who qualify to turn it down and go hungry (one kid I know explained that she’d rather be hungry than labeled and teased). We spend a fortune under the current system on the paperwork and labor to figure out who should get a free or reduced lunch – enough to cover the cost of a universally-available program. And just imagine the purchasing power schools would have if they were feeding all children, and the economies of scale they could employ in buying healthy ingredients; think of the systems for buying from local farms and producers that could be put into place, en masse, which would be a huge jolt to an agricultural sector that desperately needs it. Imagine the stimulus to the economy in training tens of thousands of workers to actually cook in schools, rather than simply heat up or reconstitute the processed food public schools currently serve. Some years ago, schools began treating lunchrooms like fast food restaurants by installing vending machines to sell branded products and soft drinks, as a way to raise more money for lunches. If universal school lunch was funded adequately, and nutritious and delicious food was actually being cooked and served to everyone, the schools could get rid of the junk food and the vending machines once and for all.
Some people argue that fast-food is all the kids want to eat. But when we talked with the kids at Alice Deal Middle School, they complained about the school lunch: “Pizza, pizza, pizza every day – we’re sick of it!” They loved the food we served (most of it, anyway!). They came back for seconds, thirds, fourths. They ate it voraciously and were vocal in their appreciation and approbation of real food. One young woman that my wife and I mentor always requests the same treat when we see her: salad. To her it is the most exotic, exciting food in the world – one that her family can’t afford. So to assume that all kids would only eat junk food when fresh, delicious, well-prepared food is available to them is giving them far less credit than they deserve.
And by the way, not only do I feel free lunch should be universal; I think breakfasts should be, too, and served right in the classroom – not in a separate (stigmatized) cafeteria. Studies of a pilot program here in NYC that provides breakfasts during homeroom showed a statistically significant increase in academic performance and good behavior among the children who received it. The teachers were over the moon about it. Sure, in an ideal world all kids would get healthy, nutritious breakfast at home, but we are deep in a recession, and many families – even those with working adults – need help making sure their kids get what they need.
As our Elimination Challenge highlighted, it is very difficult to create nutritious food within the current school lunch budget. The truth is, whole and nutritious food can be expensive, because it is expensive to grow. Junk and fast-foods are cheap because the USDA heavily subsidizes their main ingredients: commodities like corn for high fructose corn syrup, and soy, for cheap additives like soy protein isolate (i.e., MSG. )