Good Intentions and Political Wrangling Led to School Lunch as We Know It | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Good Intentions and Political Wrangling Led to School Lunch as We Know It 

A student picks out fruit and vegetables to go with her lunch at North Side Elementary School in Chapel Hill.

Photo by Caitlin Penna

A student picks out fruit and vegetables to go with her lunch at North Side Elementary School in Chapel Hill.

Mary Spell worked as a baker in two different Durham middle schools in the nineties. At the time, Durham Public Schools had a mainly scratch-made philosophy in its cafeteria.

Spell would arrive at seven-thirty every morning and, with her baking partner, craft hot yeast rolls, pizza dough, cookies, and cobblers to feed the children. Although there was a district-wide menu each week, the recipes were up to the individual schools, she tells me as we sit on her porch. She shows me a bundle of yellowing, handwritten recipes that she's kept from that time. The amounts of ingredients and servings, though not unexpected, are still jarring; her French bread recipe begins with seven and a half pounds of flour; doughnuts call for fourteen.

When Spell started baking for Lowe's Grove Middle School, most food was made on-site and with fresh ingredients. But by the time she retired from Neal Middle School, the policy had changed: most foods came in premade, frozen packages ready to be reheated. The disappointment that resulted from this change hastened her departure from school lunchrooms.

Being in the food business has always been tricky for schools. It's expensive. In the 2005–2006 school year (the last available statistics for a full year), the average cost to produce a school lunch was $2.91. But the average full price for lunch for high schoolers is around $2.60, and the governmental reimbursement for a free lunch was only $2.50. There are binders full of regulations, with the index alone running to well over three thousand words. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, just one law, spans eighty-four pages.

As in most everything else, poor kids bear the brunt of the extreme politicization that surrounds education in general, and school meals specifically.

Although education was essential among the upper classes in the United States, free, compulsory education for all proved a slow process. In 1852, Massachusetts was the first state to mandate public schools, with Mississippi the forty-eighth and final state, in 1918. Similarly, school lunches were first implemented in large cities in the Northeast. The earliest major city to institute a lunch program was Boston, in 1894. The motives were twofold—to teach children nutrition, and to "Americanize" immigrant children with a strictly American menu.

In the more agrarian, smaller towns of the South, most children went home for lunch. But many areas simply lacked the funds for building kitchens and dining rooms in the cramped, often one-room schoolhouses.

Up until the Great Depression, the school lunch programs were small, voluntary, and led by teachers or mothers' clubs. Due to the economic crisis, these programs were inundated with hungry children. Local governments sought support from the state, which then turned to federal assistance. 

During World War II, men were being rejected from the military draft because of health problems brought on by poor childhood nutrition. This led President Harry Truman to sign the National School Lunch Act in 1946. The purpose was to set nationwide standards and partially fund meals for public school students. 

Regardless of the law's underlying motivation, by 1947, seven million children had been fed. Still, almost from the start, the National School Lunch Program became an economic and ethical hot potato. Politicians have long viewed the program as an unnecessary giveaway to the poor. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan promised to cut the budget and downsize the government. To this end, one of his administration's first acts was to cut 25 percent from the program, insisting there was little actual need but, instead, much waste and malfeasance. The battle still rages with Donald Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who is pushing to slash programs, and Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who defended cuts by arguing that there's no evidence that feeding hungry kids raises test scores.

Until significant changes in the sixties, the program was less about feeding children and more of a financial windfall to the bottom lines of commercial farms and food-processing companies. Very few poor children received assistance to purchase the meals. After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Child Nutrition Act in 1966, funding was made available to feed poorer kids; still, almost no basic nutritional standards were mandated. The legislation also funded a USDA pilot program to test a comparable breakfast program.

Three years in, the breakfasts had still not reached the communities that needed them the most. In response, the Black Panther Party organized the Free Breakfast for School Children Program in 1969. Funded by neighborhood businesses and charities, it originated in Oakland, California, and operated out of St. Augustine's Church. By the end of the program's first year, 20,000 children were being fed in nineteen U.S. cities. It also inspired the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican/Hispanic movement, to start its own program.

Calling the Black Panthers a hate group, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared the breakfasts were an attempt to brainwash "highly impressionable youths." His stated mission was to destroy the good will toward the party that the breakfasts engendered among "uninformed whites and moderate blacks." Because of him, the last of the programs ended by the mid-seventies.

Rising costs and funding cuts in the seventies led many districts to contract with private companies to run the programs. As a result, fast food became the only available option in many cafeterias. The nation was poised to enter the Reagan era of "ketchup as a vegetable."

In 2004, the USDA urged schools to use the meals not only to fight malnutrition but also to target the obesity epidemic. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed, mandating nutritional minimums and sodium, fat, and caloric maximums. 

What effect has this governmental and societal do-si-do had on current school lunches, and the children who eat them?

After one hundred and twenty five years of good intentions, innovations, duplicity, heartbreak, and occasional victories, it's clear that outsourcing is a public school system's best bet. Most area private schools don't even offer meals for students and require them to bring lunch from home. Raleigh's Chesterbrook Academy, for example, offers a catered lunch program where each day of the week places like Boston Market and Jersey Mike's provide a lunch for $5.

These varied, complicated stressors combine for school systems to make contractors a viable choice. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools partners with Chartwells Food Service. They serve three districts: Winston-Salem, Burke County, and CHCCS. Last year 1,247,495 meals were served to Chapel Hill-Carrboro students.

Waiting for me in the Northside Elementary School's clean, bright cafeteria was Liz Cartano, Chartwells director of dining; Jordan Keyser, district chef (he's culinary-school trained), and registered dietician Lynne Privatte. They were proud of what they had put together.

Very quickly I realize I need to jettison my preconceived notions. If it's not scratch-made on-site, foods like pizza dough are made off-site and brought in to be finished. The only canned foods are kidney and black beans. A vegetarian meal is available each day. The vegetarian meal for today is hummus with pita points and raw veggies. The hummus is brought in but flavored with herbs and lemon in the cafeteria. There is the aforementioned pizza with fresh sauce and cheese (part-skim) added in the cafeteria before baking.

The other entrée is teriyaki chicken, with "fried" brown rice and stir-fried veggies. The veggies were lightly cooked broccoli, cauliflower, and bok choy. Unlike the limp gray canned vegetables from my school days in the seventies, this is bright, colorful, and crunchy. Dessert is mainly fresh fruit; milk is low fat, and juice comes in small portions.

Activities are set up to promote healthy eating, like farmers markets during school hours that equip kids with "dollars" to make purchases. Then the culinary staff works with the students to cook that food.

It's tricky to get everything right. But in defiance of all those monkey wrenches in their machinery, schools are still giving it a sincere effort every day.

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