What? Poor Kids in School Still Don't Get a Free Lunch?

Ms. Levine is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton University Press, March 2008).

World leaders are meeting in Rome to address the rising costs of food and fuel. Jacques Diouf, director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization told the assembled policy makers: “The problem of food insecurity is a political one…It is a question of priorities in the face of the most fundamental of human needs. And it is those choices made by governments that determine the allocation of resources.” Here in the United States, those governmental choices impact farmers and consumers, but they also affect the price and the menu of school lunches across the country.

This spring, school lunch prices soared. In Oregon rising gas prices signaled an increase of 25 cents in the cost of lunch. The Albert Lea, Minnesota, school board recently voted an increase in meal prices. “We hate to do that to our students and parents,” said the Board’s Vice Chair. Some districts cut back on nutrition in order to keep lunch prices from going up. In Palo Alto, California, for example, rising costs mean that children will face “a shorter and colder menu of lunch items.” The district is also considering laying off staff and cutting back on the hours of operation. North Carolina school districts are trying to “cut corners” while still meeting state nutrition guidelines – “without the benefit of state funds.”

A more serious consequence of rising prices, however, will be an increase in the number of children applying (and qualifying) for free and reduced price meals. On May 14, for example, Hernando County, Florida, school officials predicted that as many as half of the district’s children would apply for free meals before the end of the year. The problem is, most districts depend on paying children to make up the difference between federal free lunch subsidies and the actual cost of lunch. As the price of lunch rises, the number of paying children will go down and school cafeterias will face significant budget shortfalls. In the circumstances, lunchroom directors in Florida and elsewhere can only hope that “lawmakers shell out some money to help with rising food and labor costs.”

Who should pay for children’s nutrition? In the United States as elsewhere, food policy is a matter of political priorities. The history of the school lunch program suggests that those policy choices have long been based on calculations other than children’s health and nutrition. School menus revolved around surplus commodities – apricots one year, apples or eggs the next. To this day, the program receives significant quantities of donated food without which most lunchrooms could not cover the costs of operation – let alone the costs of free and reduced price meals.

But the school lunch program suffers from a lack of political will as much as from nutritional shortcomings. When Congress authorized a permanently funded National School Lunch Program in 1946, it set up a fiscal and administrative structure that ensured inequality. In order to encourage local buy-in, Congress required the states to match federal school lunch contributions. Instead of meeting their matching requirements with public appropriations, however, most states counted children’s meal fees as their part of the matching obligation. What is more, Congress left it up to the states to distribute the federal subsidies. Predictably, in the racially segregated South, state legislatures sent few resources to black schools. In the North, as well, school lunch resources were unevenly distributed. Until the 1960s, fewer than ten percent of children eating school lunch were from poor families and not one of the nation’s large cities participated in the

During the early 1960s, as the nation “discovered” poverty, anti-hunger activists began to demand a “right to lunch” for poor children. Under Republican President, Richard Nixon, the number of free lunches actually increased dramatically. Today the National School Lunch Program is the single most important source of nutrition for children from low-income families. Almost 60 percent of all school children nationwide get free school lunches each day.

Federal subsidies combined with local funding, however, have never covered the costs of running the nation’s school lunchrooms. Nixon’s infusion of funds for free meals masked an overall reduction in school lunch operating funds. The Reagan Administration’s infamous ruling that ketchup count as a vegetable in school lunch menus signaled another major cut-back in school lunch funding. During the 1970s, to bridge the funding gap, Congress opened school lunchrooms to commercial operations. Now schools regularly offer “a la carte” items, hoping to make enough profit from those foods to enable them to cover their free meals mandate. As food and fuel costs rise, however, corporate foodservice operators see their profits dwindle and are beginning to pull out of the school lunch market.

Food policy today is governed by political choices that reflect, at most, a half hearted commitment to social justice and equal opportunity. It is time to consider a universal school lunch program with adequate public funding so that all children can enjoy a healthy noon meal.

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