by Tracy Jamison*

 “There ain’t no such thing as free lunch…”

 Economics in eight words, El Paso Herald-Post (June 27, 1938)

 Recently, when the first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the new school lunch nutrition guidelines, there were some critiques that the current administration had overstepped their bounds and become the “Food Police”. Political pundits decried that this was just the latest example of big government run amok, impenitently imposing their authoritarian legislation. Why is the government dictating or supplementing childhood nutrition? A few of these pundits have offered a modest proposal: If the working poor cannot afford to feed their children nutritious foods, perhaps it will spur them to find better jobs. Thankfully, the leadership of this country has yet to accept their solution to eliminate childhood hunger.

Since its inception, the school lunch program has served nutritious meals in approximately 100,000 schools, as a means of growing a stronger citizenry by building the bodies of our nation’s youth. The National School Lunch Act was signed into law in 1946 by President Harry S. Truman to help provide food to school age children. President Truman began the school lunch program in response to a study that disclosed that many young men had been rejected from the draft during WWII due to medical conditions linked to childhood malnutrition. Therefore, as a measure to increase national security, the school lunch program was established.

In 1966, President Johnson extended the program to include breakfast after research that hungry children in poor rural and urban areas displayed reduced ability to concentrate in school, which consequently affected their future employment and educational opportunities. A summer meals component was added to the school lunch program in 1968 when it was found that many children missed meals during the summer due to familial poverty.  Once again, the impetus of the school lunch program was to build a stronger nation in order to bridge the achievement gap between the United States and other countries. Later, in the mid 1970’s, breakfast was expanded to incorporate children who were skipping meals due to the participation of both of their parents in the workforce.

In 1995, the School Meal Initiative for Healthy Children was implemented after the passage of the Healthy Meals for Healthy Americans Act. In 2003, the government accounting office released a report on the school lunch program titled Efforts Needed to Improve Nutrition and Encourage Healthy Eating, school lunches did not meet the thirty percent limit on calories from fat. Concern was expressed on the barriers to increasing nutrition such as the loss of revenue for schools from vending machine and snack bar sales. It was stated that overcoming barriers would require strong and persevering leadership. Lastly, in late 2009, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies released, School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children, which recommended that significant improvements be made in the nutritional standards of school lunches that had been degraded by a previous administration. One notorious example of decreasing nutritional standards occurred when ketchup was declared a vegetable. Ketchup a vegetable! A medicine, maybe; but never a vegetable, but that is a story for another blog post.

The most recent example of our country’s historical commitment to making childhood nutrition a priority is the Let’s Move Initiative. The goal of the Let’s Move is to raise a healthier generation of children. The dearth of evidence based research on childhood obesity has found that it has risen considerably due to the glut of cheap calorically dense, but nutrient deficient food loaded with hydrogenated fats, added sugar and salt, as well as flavor enhancers for good measure. As with previous administrations, these evidence based health threats to our nation’s children were recognized and swift action taken.

The school lunch program was established approximately seventy years ago to improve the health of this nation’s children by providing nutritious meals to those who would have otherwise gone hungry and suffered the lifetime effects of childhood malnutrition. Today the program provides healthy meals to all children according to income. In closing, I would like to remind the junk food manufacturers who shroud their anger over ever-shrinking market shares with rabble-rousing claims that government interference in the government created school lunch program is unprecedented and a matter of civil liberty infringement, to ruminate on seven words: There are no free lunches in America.

*Tracy Jamison is pursuing a Master’s in History of Science at Oregon State University.

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2 thoughts on “A Chronicle of the School Cafeteria

  1. Thanks for the great article, Tracy! Calls for federal efforts to provide healthy food for children has, in the past, provoked rhetoric about government overreaching (including in the debate over the initial establishment of the federal school lunch program). As you point out, emphasizing the nation’s security has been a crucial weapon to counter such rhetoric. I haven’t read debates on the various legislative expansions you mention . . . I wonder if arguments about human rights (the right not to starve, the right to health) have every played a role in such debates? My guess is this would be a marginal argument, given what I know about discussions of “welfare reform” in the same time period.

  2. Hi Marisa,

    Thanks for your great comment! No, I doubt that the right to health, the reduction of societal chronic disease burden or the right not to starve has ever entered into the equation. This is why I mentioned “a modest proposal” as a nod to Johnathan Swift’s story and to address the ludicrous position of those who would use the reality of childhood hunger to flippantly suggest that it could be used as a positive means to an end. Thanks again for your comment!

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