This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Lunch Gets Schooled, first released on September 12, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
EMI: My name is Emi. I was both a brown bagger and a hot lunch, just depending on the situation. My personal favorite school lunches were the French fries shaped like smiley faces, and the Snoopy ice cream bars I got at one school every Friday.
GEORGE: My name is George Santos. I grew up in Puerto Rico, and over there school lunches, three out of the five days of the week, was rice and beans and then some sort of meat and plantains. We’d also get a little bag of milk, you had to take a pointy straw and stab it to drink it and we used to, like, stack up the bags of milk and stab it with a straw and see how many we could drink. Very weird but it was a ton of fun.
JANE BLACK: My name is Jane Black. I remember the square pizza, you know, and it was always on Fridays and it had that sort of—you could tell that it was shredded cheese that had kind of, you know, melted and then congealed.
CYNTHIA GRABER: That is literally one of the only two things I remember about school lunch in my elementary school—Friday’s square mushy pizza. The other is the boxes of milk. Nothing else.
TWILLEY: We even had that square pizza when I was growing up in England. It’s a cross-cultural school lunch phenomenon.
GRABER: We asked for all your school lunch stories not because we wanted to fondly reminisce about our favorite meals, but rather, because we’re doing an episode all about the history and science of school lunch!
TWILLEY: And this is that episode! I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and you’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history.
TWILLEY: So how did we both end up with spongy square pizza on our plates? In fact, how did we end up with school lunch at all? Because it hasn’t always existed, obviously.
GRABER: And in some countries, it still doesn’t. If you can believe it—Canada does not have school lunch. Why?
TWILLEY: And in places where we do have school lunch, the mantra is always: it’s broken, we need to fix it. Call in Jamie Oliver and a TV crew. But is it really broken? And if so, how do we fix it? Or should we even bother? Does school lunch even make a difference?
GRABER: For that we’ll turn to science—how important is school lunch to student achievement, as well as to student health?
TWILLEY: All that and a helping of mushy peas this episode.
TWILLEY: So why does the U.S. have school lunch? Where did that idea even come from? As it happens, you have to take a step further back to answer that question.
JENNIFER RUTLEDGE: You can’t have school lunch programs until you understand childhood and children as separate from adults, and children as deserving of protection as separate from adults. So it’s the sort of creation of childhood as an idea. Which sounds insane to say childhood is an idea, but it really is.
GRABER: Jennifer Geist Rutledge is an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and the author of a new book called Feeding the Future: School Lunch Programs as Global Social Policy. And the notion of childhood that she’s talking about—this started to develop in Europe and the U.S. in the late 1800s.
TWILLEY: And Jennifer’s point is, you can’t start to create programs to feed children until you see them as children, different from adults. And the emergence of the idea of childhood being a separate stage of life is tied to a particular point in history: the industrial revolution.
ANDREW RUIS: And you have a large number of people moving into cities, you know, moving into new kinds of employment, working in factories and mills and that sort of thing. And that has a pretty wide ranging effects on social structures, on family size and family life.
GRABER: Andrew Ruis also just wrote a book. It’s called Eating to Learn, Learning to Eat: The Origins of School Lunch in the United States. He’s a historian at University of Wisconsin Madison.
TWILLEY: Andrew told us that before, kids would have worked alongside their parents and siblings on the farm or in the family trade. After the industrial revolution and urbanization, things are different. A family doesn’t work together. Jobs in these new factories are often dangerous. At first, kids were working in factories, but it was increasingly clear that they weren’t exactly suited to it.
GRABER: And so in Europe at the time—because Europe industrialized first—authors and philosophers were pointing out these dangers. They’re starting to think of children and childhood as a time of innocence that needed protection. And so you get the first child labor laws.
TWILLEY: But if kids aren’t workers, then what do they do all day? The concept of school obviously existed already. The children of the wealthy had long been educated. They had tutors and governesses, and they went to exclusive schools that trained them for their future of running estates and exchanging witticisms with their fellow aristocrats.
GRABER: But now there’s the idea that everyone should have access to school, no matter what their financial or class situation. And you see the beginning of mandatory education for all kids.
RUIS: Compulsory education is a state level, so different states passed these laws at different times and all of them do so by about 1918.
TWILLEY: Part of the motivation behind compulsory education laws had to do with preparing children for these new kinds of industrial jobs. And part of it was just to address the fact that you had cities with lots of kids all together in one place, and no parental supervision, because the parents are out working.
GRABER: So that explains why kids are all in school at this point, let’s say the early 1900s in the U.S., a little earlier in the UK and other parts of Europe. But it doesn’t explain why the schools started feeding them lunch.
TWILLEY: Well, kids do need to eat in the middle of the day. If they had a parent at home, usually their mother, then they’d go home, eat something and then come back to school.
RUIS: But in other cases that wasn’t possible, either because both parents worked outside the home, or because kids were going to school a little too far away from where from where they lived. And in those cases, they had a number of options, one of which was, just like today, to bring lunch with them. But they also had a wide range of options in the surrounding neighborhoods, where there were corner stores and restaurants and bakeries and even saloons and bars.
GRABER: Saloons and bars? Just what I picture when it comes to buying school lunch. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, kids didn’t make the best choices when left to their own devices.
TWILLEY: In Andrew’s book, he has some anecdotes from the early 1900s. One boy in New Haven confesses to buying a dozen crullers for his lunch—and eating all of them. A pickle vendor in Illinois claimed to sell a barrel of pickles a week to local school kids.
GRABER: In LA, kids survived on ice cream and tamales. Pie was a popular option. And nearly a third of the elementary school kids in Wisconsin drank coffee on a daily basis.
RUIS: So one thing to keep in mind is that, you know, at the turn of the 20th century, even well into the 20th century, the idea of sort of age-appropriate foods or children’s foods is a relatively new one, and not a particularly widespread one. So it was pretty common for children to eat and drink the same kinds of things that adults did. Which meant that plenty of children drank things like coffee and tea. Many drank beer and children smoked often.
TWILLEY: Surprisingly enough, kids were not necessarily thriving on this diet. But one of the unintended consequences of getting all these kids into state-run schools is that the state starts to look at them as a whole for the first time. And they don’t like what they see.
RUIS: So physicians and nurses who are working in schools start to actually document just how unhealthy so many kids seem to be. There was a sort of assumption that well, they’re young, you know, they’re sort of the prime of their life, they should generally be healthy. And that turned out not to be the case.
GRABER: Obviously crullers for lunch isn’t the only reason that kids were doing so poorly. But a lot of health problems became obvious, and one of the most significant ones was malnutrition.
TWILLEY: The answer seems simple. School should provide lunch, no?
GRABER: As Andrew says, not so simple.
RUIS: Right, so there were a number of challenges for anybody who wanted to promote the idea that schools should be feeding children. So one of them was around how to finance it. Many people argued that adequate and sufficiently nourishing food is a basic human right. And if we’re going to require students to attend school, then we should provide for their basic needs, one of which is sufficient nourishment. Others argued that well, schools aren’t required to house children, they aren’t required to clothe them, so why should they be required to feed them? It’s quite an expensive endeavor and we have to sort of draw the line somewhere.
TWILLEY: It boils down to a question of what should be a parent’s responsibility versus what the state should be doing.
GRABER: Which is something people have a hard time agreeing on even today. There were other barriers at the time, too. One of them was that most education laws literally didn’t allow schools to spend money on food. And also, there was the logistics question: how would schools do it? How would they get the food, cook it, serve it—all of that?
TWILLEY: There was also another argument, which again you still hear from more conservative lawmakers today. They say that if you give people—even kids—stuff for free, they will end up believing everything should be given to them for free and they don’t ever need to work. In the early 1900s, this theory went by the name of “pauperization.” Today it tends to be called “welfare dependency.”
GRABER: We just want to point out something—this is pretty much a myth. There is no data that supports the idea that handouts in general discourage people from working.
TWILLEY: Still, then and now, a lot of people believe that to be true. And combined with these other barriers, states hesitated. In the end, it was left to community organizations to step in and try to figure out school lunch.
GRABER: And these community organizations did figure it out. One of the reasons Andrew says they were successful is that they took care to make the food appealing to the kids.
RUIS: Some places like New York and Chicago and a number of other large cities, schools that had for example predominantly Jewish populations often had kosher menus, and tried to work with local rabbis and local communities to ensure that the students would be able to eat the foods. Schools that had predominantly Italian populations tried to develop Italian menus.
TWILLEY: And it wasn’t enough just to have Italian foods on the menu. In Andrew’s book, there’s this adorable line from a little Italian kid. She says, “You Americans take all the nerve out of our macaroni!” So the New York community group hired Italian cooks who could season the macaroni appropriately.
GRABER: Oil and garlic for Italian kids, kosher meals for Jewish kids. The Irish, who, quote, “would not eat their soup thick” were served clam chowders and thin soups with bits of meat in them.
TWILLEY: And, like we said, these community-led school lunch programs were popular. The kids liked the food, they ate the food, the programs weren’t hemorrhaging money. And they seemed to make a difference.
RUIS: In the past, as in the present, it was extremely difficult to measure the effects of nutritional intervention.
GRABER: But they tried. The people in charge of the programs collected some really basic measurements. They’d measure the height and weight of students regularly. They tracked participation in the school lunch programs. They tracked overall attendance. Students seemed to gain weight, which was a good thing back then. And they seemed to stay in school more, not miss as much school in programs with school lunches. These are small effects and anecdotal results, but they were important evidence that school lunch made a difference.
TWILLEY: And based on the success of these first, pilot projects, gradually, and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, states stepped in and started to take over school lunch provision themselves.
GRABER: And then the Great Depression hit. People in the cities were losing their factory jobs, they were poor, and they were hungry.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, back on the farm, things were also going pear-shaped. Farms were scaling up and industrializing too, and so they were producing more and more food. But that ended up pushing down prices.
RUIS: And so it created this pretty substantial mismatch, which is often known as the paradox of plenty, where farms were producing at record levels, but they weren’t harvesting the produce and marketing it and selling it because it became too expensive for them to do so.
GRABER: And so there were these New Deal programs that were developed in the 1930s to basically kill two birds with one stone. The government would purchase the food and so help farmers make a decent living, and then the government would find ways to give that food to help people who couldn’t afford it. Like hungry kids at school.
TWILLEY: At first, this was a temporary program, set up because of the Depression. But then, particularly in the South, where there were a lot of hungry kids and a lot of poor farmers, people didn’t want to see it stop.
RUIS: And so representatives and senators, from places like Georgia and Louisiana and Virginia and other places, started to draft legislation to make school lunches a permanent federal program.
GRABER: But there were some basic disagreements on what that federal program should look like.
RUIS: To take a very simple example: was this a program that should be overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture? More on that on the sort of production side, the farm side. Or is this a program that should be overseen by the Department of Education, which would be more on the consumer side, in this case the schools and the students. And so even very simple questions like that became major policy points, because it reflected where the priorities of the school lunch program really were.
TWILLEY: There were other, even more complex arguments. Some school lunch advocates wanted it to be a holistic kind of program with nutrition education as well; some wanted to make into a civil rights program, guaranteeing that all kids had equal access to school meals.
GRABER: And yes, are you probably guessed, they lost.
RUIS: And in the end as many people are familiar with, the resulting legislation really did become simply food distribution kind of program and there was no provision for nutrition education. There was no provision for nutrition health work in the schools. There were, you know, anti-discrimination protections and that sort of thing. Most of that was cut out of the final bill in order to pass it.
TWILLEY: So now America has school lunch. It’s a program for disposing of agricultural surpluses, and not much more—but it’s something. Like we said at the start, not all countries have school lunch.
GRABER: This actually—I know it’s going to seem maybe a little naive—but this really shocked me. I thought everyone had school lunches. But a lot of countries don’t.
RUTLEDGE: And when I was first doing this research I basically compiled a sort of global database of all the countries in the world and who had school lunches and who didn’t. And when I stumbled on Norway, I thought, this is weird. This is really, really strange. You’d think Norway should have school lunches.
TWILLEY: That’s Jennifer Geist Rutledge again. She’s the author of a new book on school lunch around the world. And I have a Norwegian sister-in-law and I was still blown away by this. Norway? They give their citizens everything! Healthcare, actual hard cash… and not lunch?
GRABER: Jennifer obviously was pretty shocked, too. So she compared Norway to its neighbor, Sweden. Because Sweden does have a school lunch program.
RUTLEDGE: So in the case of Sweden, one, you have this sort of liberal social democratic state. They wanted women to work. They wanted to make it easy for women to work. They also adopted agricultural policy after the war that encouraged farmers to make lots of food. So it became a sort of natural outlet to say well, why don’t we give the food to kids at school and then women don’t have to be at home.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, Norway adopted a little bit of a different agricultural policy. They still propped up their farmers. But rather than buy the surplus production, instead, they essentially just gave farmers a wage. So the farmers weren’t incentivized to produce lots of extra food, and the government didn’t have lots of excess food on its hands to give away.
RUTLEDGE: At the same time, there was this very strong ideology in Norway that women should stay at home. That women’s role is in the house, and so you didn’t want to make it easy for women to work, right? You know, if you send kids home at lunch, somebody needs to be there feed them. And it’s most likely going to be women, particularly in that kind of time period.
GRABER: So because of two different agricultural policies, and two different attitudes about women’s work, Swedish kids get school lunch, and Norwegian kids don’t. To this day.
TWILLEY: This gender ideology plays out in other countries too, alongside other, country-specific values. In my home country, England, school lunch is considered a matter of national security—you need future soldiers to be healthy and strong. But it’s also seen as an opportunity to build British citizenship by teaching kids those all important table manners.
RUTLEDGE: And there’s these really wonderful historical photos of these British schoolchildren all sitting there in their rows with their fine china. I mean, they would serve these these meals on fine china with real silverware.
TWILLEY: Anyone who listened to our first-ever episode will know that how you handle your knife and fork is really important to British people.
GRABER: Jennifer also compares East and West Germany. Here you have the basic difference of communism versus capitalism.
RUTLEDGE: Where you get East Germany that creates a school lunch program largely driven by the sort of communist ideals of everybody working together and equality. Right?
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, in West Germany, there was this sense that sending kids home for lunch was a way of ensuring they grew up into good little capitalists.
RUTLEDGE: And then in West Germany there was this incredible reaction after World War II, that we had lost so much—so much of our sort of democratic spirit and individualism—and we had to recreate that by having lunches at home.
GRABER: Gender is clearly playing a role here, too. East German women are encouraged to work, West German women are encouraged to stay home. But this has serious repercussions today in unified Germany. The stats in Jennifer’s book absolutely shocked us.
TWILLEY: I read them out loud to my husband, Geoff, repeatedly. I could not believe them. Okay, so sixty percent of childfree German women work. Once they have one kid that number goes down to fourteen percent. FOURTEEN PERCENT.
GRABER: And it gets worse! German women who have two or more kids? Only six percent work! SIX PERCENT.
RUTLEDGE: And so you see these long term repercussions of choices that countries made back in the 40s and 50s about what to do about their children. Right? Should they feed them or should they not? And so you still have German women today basically sort of facing cultural stigma if they work. Which I think it is problematic for lots of different reasons.
TWILLEY: Uh huh.
GRABER: And one more piece of shock and awe: Canada, our neighbor to the north, they do not provide school lunch.
RUTLEDGE: Yeah. I mean, Canada was also another surprise. You think well, Canada, come on they’re better at this stuff than the US, of course they feed kids. And in fact they never chose to.
TWILLEY: Canada has a very similar agricultural policy to the US, buying up surplus to support farmers. It was also every bit as misogynistic as America—maybe even more so.
RUTLEDGE: There was a prohibition on married women working until 1955, I think it was in Canada. But I think actually more importantly in Canada is that—and this is going to sound crazy—but poverty didn’t exist.
GRABER: This is complicated. Part of the reason poverty supposedly didn’t exist in Canada has to do with the fact that women were given a baby bonus, so how could there be child poverty if families were given money for kids? But then also, it just wasn’t recognized because of the type of data the government did, and didn’t, collect.
RUTLEDGE: So the official statistical measurements start to change in, I think it’s 1989. They declare it like the Year of the Child and so people start looking into this and they go, oh my gosh, there is child poverty. Oh my gosh, there is child hunger. Now, of course there was child poverty, of course there was child hunger.
TWILLEY: There always is, sadly. But until the Canadian government started tracking it, there was nothing for people to raise concerns about or organize around. Now there is.
RUTLEDGE: What we have mostly right now in Canada is volunteer efforts, charity efforts, to feed children. Which is where every other country started also, right? It’s just that most other countries started in the late 1800s and Canada’s just starting to do that now.
GRABER: Jennifer told us that today, kids in 151 countries receive free or subsidized school lunches. And a lot of that is because of the World Food Programme, which is part of the United Nations. Which is a really interesting story. We wanted to tell you about it, but frankly then this episode would last two hours.
TWILLEY: I was like, come on, our listeners can handle it. But Cynthia talked me down by promising we could include that story in our special Gastropod Sustaining Supporters email, which goes out every other week to everyone who gives $5 a episode through Patreon or $9 a month via our website. So that’s where it is! Or you can read Jennifer’s book!
GRABER: Instead, for now, we’ll play some listener stories for you from around the world, starting with this kid who was recorded for us in Colombia.
COLOMBIAN CHILD: I have lunch at my school and I really like it because I have different options to select. For example meat, chicken, some jam, or fish. Rice, juice, and a delicious dessert. So I prefer to have lunch in my school than take it from my home.
COSTA RICAN CHILD: In Costa Rica, all the schools have the responsibility to you to give them the food of all students. So we all the days eat the same food. Rice, beans, natural juice, and chicken, any kind of meat.
PAILIN: Hey Gastropod, my name is Pailin. I’m from Vancouver, Canada, but I was born and raised in Thailand. So I loved my school lunch. It was fantastic and here’s why. First of all, nobody brings lunch, everybody buys the lunch from the school cafeteria. But our cafeteria was actually more like a food court, where the school would have different vendors in there. And the food was freshly prepared, authentic Thai home cooking. And I think, you know, when people think school lunch they always think not great. But for me, I have such fond memories of school lunches.
MATEJ: My name is Matej Hargas. I was born in what is now the country of Slovakia in Central Europe. One of my memories is that in the first three or four years of when I went to school, it would be common habit for the teachers to be present with their class in the canteen to make sure that children eat up their lunch. If you didn’t want finish what was on your plate, there would be psychological pressure and sometimes the threat of physical punishment, although I can’t really remember it ever going further than threats. So, up to this day, I can’t stand pickled beetroot. They made me hate dill in any form and I can’t see green beans without feeling queasy.
TWILLEY: I feel you, Matej. It took me two decades to try sweetcorn after the tinned stuff our school lunch ladies added to everything. They even put it on square pizza! But, mushy overcooked vegetable trauma aside, does school lunch actually work? What does the science say? We’ve got all that and Jamie Oliver still to come, but first, we want to tell you about our sponsors this episode.
TWILLEY: Now, back to school lunch. We now know that school lunch works to prop up overproduction on the farm, and it can also help get women in the workforce. But does it actually help kids?
GRABER: Earlier in the show, we told you that some of the first school lunch programs were evaluated for how well they helped kids’ health improve. There seem to have been some benefits, at least anecdotally—kids who were previously underweight and malnourished seemed to be gaining weight, there seemed to be better attendance and fewer sick days. But those weren’t exactly super rigorous studies.
TWILLEY: Since then, there has been a bunch more research on the impact of feeding kids at school. The majority of studies, both in developing countries and in the U.S., show that increased access to school lunch significantly increases kids’ test scores.
GRABER: There’s also plenty of research that explains why that might be the case. When students aren’t hungry, they can focus. There’s an improvement in concentration and memory and behavior. Malnutrition, when kids aren’t getting enough calories or particular nutrients, that causes problems in brain development and sight, for instance. All of this seems to improve with access to school meals, which boosts test scores.
TWILLEY: Plus, researchers have documented that particularly in developing countries, school lunch is an incentive for parents to send their kids to school and for kids to go. And going to school definitely helps boost your academic achievement.
ELIZABETH RAMIREZ RICHIE: But there’s been relatively little research into whether the actual, like, nutritional quality of the meals matters for student achievement.
GRABER: Elizabeth Ramirez Richie is a grad student at UC Berkeley, and she’s one of the authors of a new Brookings Institute paper called “School Lunch and Academic Performance.”
TWILLEY: She and her colleagues set out to answer this question. And they did it by first gathering the standardized test scores for something like 9,000 schools in California over a five year period.
GRABER: Of course, there are lots of things that could make a school’s test scores go up.
RICHIE: And so we control for those things. So we’re trying to make sure that it’s not the case that the demographics of the school are changing and that’s leading to higher test scores. We also specifically control for changes in, like, the overall budget of the school district, in the student-to-teacher ratio, in changes in superintendents.
TWILLEY: Etcetera, etcetera. So they gathered all that data, too. Then they tried to measure the nutritional value of the lunches being served in all these schools.
RICHIE: You know, we’re economists and measuring the quality of the school lunches isn’t our strength.
GRABER: So instead they got some nutritionists to work on that. Experts at the Nutrition Policy Institute at Berkeley evaluated the menus from the schools that were part of the study. They gave the menus a score— basically how healthy the meal is according to something called the Healthy Eating Index, or HEI.
TWILLEY: And so with all that data, and controlling for all the other possible interventions and changes that could have helped raise test scores, they found that, at schools that switched vendors to serve a healthier lunch…
RICHIE: It increases test scores by point zero three standard deviations. And that’s kind of across all students in our sample. And then if we break it up by advantaged and disadvantaged students, there seems to be a slightly larger effect for disadvantaged students.
TWILLEY: So what exactly is point zero three standard deviations? Is that even good?
GRABER: We asked Elizabeth what that meant. It’s kind of hard to tease out, but she says that healthier school lunches probably move the average student’s test scores up about two to three percentile points.
TWILLEY: So my first response was, well, that doesn’t actually sound like a lot. But Elizabeth pointed out, a good way to understand the difference a healthier school lunch makes is to compare it with other interventions that can raise test scores.
RICHIE: So a commonly cited intervention in the education literature is the Tennessee STAR experiment, which significantly reduced class size. And, as you can imagine, hiring teachers to really reduce class size is very expensive. And that intervention achieved improvement in test scores of about point two standard deviations.So that’s considered a very big effect. Obviously point zero three is, you know, smaller than that.
GRABER: It is also a lot cheaper—but is it worth it?
RICHIE: Okay, if the only thing you ever do is make lunches healthier, yeah, you’re not going to see a massive difference in student performance. But that a number of small changes that are very cost effective can be better than potentially a really big expensive change.
GRABER: Sounds like it is a good investment in student performance. It’s just not a silver bullet.
TWILLEY: So back in the early 1900s, when school lunches were new, the other thing that people tried to measure was the impact they had on students’ health, not just their academic performance. That’s something Elizabeth and her colleagues looked at, too. Of course, today in the U.S. kids’ health problems have less to do with undernutrition and malnutrition as much as obesity.
GRABER: But, as it turns out, Elizabeth didn’t see any impact on obesity. The healthier lunches didn’t seem to make a dent in the students’ weight overall.
RICHIE: However, we think there are a couple of reasonable explanations for this. One is that the school lunches actually have calorie minimums. And so, to the extent that the number of calories isn’t changing, it’s maybe reasonable to think that you wouldn’t immediately see an effect on obesity. And these effects may take a little bit longer to see if the change in calories isn’t very large. And, secondly, we think that generally you know the—there are nutritional advantages to these meals and health advantages that can’t be captured just by obesity.
TWILLEY: But this issue of obesity is one that’s been driving major changes in America’s school lunch program in the past decade.
MICHELLE OBAMA: We can all agree that in the United States of America, no child should go to school hungry.
GRABER: Michelle Obama was one of the inspirations behind the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which President Obama signed into law in December 2010. The bill brought together a diverse group of supporters. And they’re using arguments that should sound pretty familiar by this point.
OBAMA: From educators working to provide healthier school meals because they know the connection between proper nutrition and academic performance. From doctors and nurses who know that unhealthy kids grow into unhealthy adults, at risk for obesity related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer. And from military leaders who tell us that when more than 1 in 4 young people are unqualified for military service because of their weight.
RUIS: So the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act basically did a lot of the things that the early advocates of a more holistic school lunch program had really hoped for. So in addition to changes like simply raising the level of reimbursement for schools, to make it easier for them to provide nourishing meals, the act required stricter nutrition standards. It required schools to develop wellness plans and plans for nutrition education.
TWILLEY: In a lot of ways, Andrew pointed out, this took school lunch back to the vision of its earliest supporters. But before we dive into fixing school lunch, we need to stop for a minute, and paint a picture of school lunch before the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. What did the fact that in the United States, school lunch had effectively turned into a program to absorb agricultural surplus, rather than this more holistic nutrition focused program—what did that mean for what ended up on kids’ plates?
GRABER: It meant that whatever farmers produced too much of, that got dumped on the kids’ trays. For instance, weirdly, one year the government subsidized olive production and so there were suddenly too many olives. The schools were, like, what do we do with a ton of olives? And then there’s the cheese.
BLACK: And so in the 1980s, America was awash in dairy.
TWILLEY: This is Jane Black, she’s a food writer based in Washington D.C.. She’s spent a long time studying school lunch, and she recently wrote about it for the Huffington Post, with the support of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, which is also a friend to Gastropod.
BLACK: And so the government said, well, okay, let’s give it to the kids. Great idea, right? But of course the farmers who now had someone to sell this to thought, well, great, we’ll just keep producing and keep selling it. And so the government had to come up with another idea and that idea was, okay, let’s kill all the cows because then they can’t produce any more milk. And then we’ll take all that beef and we’ll give it to the kids.
TWILLEY: Some years it was direct giving of surplus food, some years it was discounting surplus food, but either way, what ended up on kids’ plates often wasn’t pretty. Same deal when I was growing up in England, for similar reasons, as one of our listeners reminded me.
NAOMI: Hello Gastropod. British listener Naomi here, and I can’t wait to tell you about my experience of school lunches—or school dinners as we call them in the Midlands and the North! My favorite pudding was cornflake tart, which was a thick, shortcut pastry, with a layer of jam, topped with cornflakes coated in treacle to make it set. Delicious! It was usually served with custard, which would always have a thick skin on it. Custard was yellow, pink or chocolate. Yep, that’s right: two colors, one flavor.
ALI: My name is Ali Wallace and I’m from Los Angeles, California. So speaking of school lunches, the first thing that I remember was just it was all about Lunchables. And the king—the king of the Lunchable—was the Lunchable Nacho at my school. People would go nuts for the Lunchables nacho.
JAI: Hi my name is Jai, and I’m a college student currently living in Brooklyn. And my most memorable school lunch experience was back in middle school. I’d just decided to be a vegetarian. This was in seventh grade and they just straight up refused to give me a sandwich without meat, even after they explained that I was a vegetarian. And I remember crying because I didn’t have anything I could eat.
TWILLEY: Ah, school lunch. Such fond memories.
GRABER: There’s another reason that school lunches turned into basically reheated frozen processed crap— another reason among many, to be honest. And it’s a financial one. It’s complicated. But because of how school lunches were originally funded in the 1950s, it ended up being richer schools that could take advantage of the money available. Poor kids were basically screwed.
BLACK: So, in 1968, a report was published called “Our Daily Bread” and it revealed what was essentially school lunch’s first national scandal. And that was that the kids who were the poorest were not getting school lunch. In fact, in this report there was a school in Alabama that had just fifteen meals a day to be shared among a thousand kids, while middle class kids were actually being able to be helped.
TWILLEY: So Congress, in its infinite wisdom, responded by creating a three-tier system: the poorest kids all got free lunch, the slightly less poor but still super poor got a subsidized lunch, and everyone else had to buy it.
BLACK: And this was a good idea. And again well-intentioned. They were trying to make sure that the poorest children got food. But what happened was is it turned what was a food program into a welfare program and it started to be seen by both the politicians and by the families and the communities as something that was only for poor kids.
TWILLEY: So, fast forward a decade or so, and it is morning in America.
BLACK: Well, Reagan came in with this promise to slash domestic spending. And the school lunch program was a target. And, you know, I have to editorialize here to say that of course, you know, kids don’t vote, right? So they’re an easy target. And you’d think that parents would come to their defense but it generally doesn’t happen. So the Reagan administration decided that it was wasteful to support middle and upper-class families and so they were going to slash the entire school lunch budget by 25 percent. And so the schools didn’t have as much money and they were forced to continue to make lunch for the children who needed it with even less money. And so what did they do? They started to buy even cheaper food and more processed foods in order to be able to get the requisite number of calories on the plate for even less money.
GRABER: In addition to buying cheap, processed foods, schools also don’t have money to upgrade kitchen equipment.
BLACK: You have schools that have kitchens that, as one school food service director described to me, was built before Jesus was born.
TWILLEY: Now, Jane was quick to stress, this is not the case everywhere. Some places have great kitchens. Some places have managed to figure out how to provide good food for cheap. But, for the most part, school lunch and school cafeterias today—they’re still pretty grim.
BLACK: You know, they are in a way exactly the way you remember them. They’re noisy. They are rushed. There are kids talking at the top of their voices. And the food is generally as bad as you remember except in certain special locations.
GRABER: We heard from a lot of you all about these special locations where school lunch is improving. There are partnerships with local farms. Schools are even providing meals that are more appropriate to the ethnic makeup of their students, such as curries and stir-fries. And chefs are coming in to take over and cook real meals.
WILL: Hi everyone, my name is Will Block and I am 13 years old. I go to Bear Creek Community Charter School and at my school we have our own chef. My favorite thing he makes is pierogies. We had them last week and I loved them. At my old school—this was before we had a chef—my favorite thing was the mozzarella sticks. Those were the only thing that looked and tasted good.
TWILLEY: School lunch is changing—and people want it to change. But this slow progress is not enough for some people. Some people just want to see school lunch burn. Tear down this broken system and start over with a school lunch revolution.
BLACK: In 2010, as you may remember, there was a TV show that was on called Food Revolution. And it was Jamie Oliver, he’s a chef in the UK who is very famous and he, in addition to having made millions or perhaps billions of dollars, you know, hawking pans and having restaurants and recipes, he became kind of a crusader for food. And in the UK he had a program where he tried to change the school lunches there. He went to a town where he tried to teach people how to cook and then that was working very well and he decided, well, I’m going to come to the United States and do the same thing.
GRABER: Where does Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution in America begin? Huntington, West Virginia. At that point, Huntington had recently been named the most unhealthy city in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
BLACK: So he shows up and, you know, in three, four, or five weeks, you know, he’s going to save the town from itself. And, you know, they’re all going to get thin and be happy. And of course I was rather interested in whether that was going to work.
TWILLEY: I don’t know what she means. It’s TV, of course it will work.
GRABER: Well, it certainly made for some damn compelling episodes.
BLACK: Jamie Oliver came in, it looked great on TV. He was showing first graders, you know, what a tomato was and putting real food on the plate. And he swooped in and he swooped out and the kids hated the food. They stopped eating it. They stopped buying it. The school district lost a lot of money. They had to fire a number of cooks.
TWILLEY: I am shocked, I tell you. Shocked.
GRABER: But this story doesn’t end here. Because Huntington is actually lucky. The school food service director is a woman named Rhonda McCoy. She’s worked in the system for decades. She’s also trained in nutrition.
BLACK: To be entirely honest, Rhonda could have easily just said, to hell with this, I’m going to go back to doing things the way that I was doing them before, which I would like to point out were better than they were in most other school districts despite what it looked like on TV. But she didn’t, and she decided that he had made a good point and that fresh probably was better and that she was going to put in the work to try to take what he had started and finish it in a way that worked both for her budget and for the kids, because if the kids don’t eat then the kids are going hungry.
TWILLEY: So Jane settled in in West Virginia and she watched as Rhonda McCoy figured out how to deal with the debris that Jamie and his crew left behind.
BLACK: The way that you improve a school lunch system is not like a reality TV show. There’s no drama, there’s no glory. You know, it’s literally tweaking recipes. It’s literally scouring ingredient lists that come from say, the USDA, which still provides some food at a discount or for free and saying, okay, you know, if I take that then I can buy this. And it’s these little tiny things, these things that only someone like a Rhonda who’s very detail oriented and very determined, can pull off.
GRABER: And then there’s a piece of the story that is actually more made-for-TV. And that’s how you get students to taste, and to enjoy, healthier options than what they’re used to eating.
BLACK: In a lot of places in America, not just Huntington—in big cities too, you know—people want to eat burgers and fries. They just do. So you have to make them want to try the salad or want to try the quinoa. I don’t think they’re serving quinoa in Huntington but you get my point. And so what Rhonda did was really try to tap into the community. Huntington is not a place that ever had a rich or deep farming culture but there are people who farm and she helped to fund a number of student farmers while they were in high school. And so she would put you know a salad on the salad bar and she would say this is Zach’s lettuce or these are Oren’s cucumbers. And, you know, I can’t prove whether it worked. But there is a sense that kids were a little more interested, they were a little more open. It wasn’t a sense of, oh, the lunch lady’s telling me I have to eat salad. It’s, hey, my friend is making some money off this. That’s kind of interesting. I’m going to get the salad.
TWILLEY: So Rhonda McCoy has made it work. She’s serving fresher, healthier meals, within the USDA school lunch framework and budget, the kids are eating them, it’s all great, right?
GRABER: Why do I always have to be the one to say: not so fast? Because, not so fast. Just like there was a financial reason, the way the school lunch programs were paid for, how Reagan cut the budget, this in part led to the decline in the quality of school lunch food. The economics today that were set up as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act are actually helping Rhonda. But they’re threatened.
TWILLEY: The current U.S. president has called for a twenty-one percent cut to the Department of Agriculture budget, which would likely seriously eat into school lunch funding. Meanwhile, right-wing members of Congress in the so-called Freedom Caucus want to dismantle something called the CEP, the Community Eligibility Program. This sounds like a very boring bureaucratic detail, but Jane told us that it’s the thing that allows Rhonda McCoy in West Virginia to make her school lunches work, economically.
BLACK: Essentially what it does is it allows schools with very low-income students to feed everyone for free. We don’t have to bill the parents. There are all these administration fees that just disappear and that allow the school food service directors to focus on actually feeding the people.
GRABER: What’s more, weirdly, it’s actually cheaper to feed all the students for free. It’s an economy of scale thing. Think about it— f you’re making food for fifty people, you need maybe four people to do so. And if you’re cooking for 100, you need maybe five. And labor is one of the biggest costs.
TWILLEY: So basically, CEP came in in 2010, and it did away with the three-tiered system.
GRABER: Used to be that schools had to figure out which students got free lunch, which were got reduced lunches, and so on. There was a lot of paperwork. There was a lot of lunch-money shaming, going after parents who hadn’t, and maybe couldn’t, pay.
TWILLEY: CEP got rid of all that, and it made the economics work.
GRABER: But, as Nicky just said, CEP is now a target. And Rhonda is freaking out.
BLACK: It has been a target because there are ways that people choose to talk about it who don’t really understand how and why it’s working. They’ll say, oh, you’re feeding all these kids for free instead of just the ones who need it. There shouldn’t be such a thing as a free lunch. Well, you know, that’s an easy sell in Congress and it makes a big difference to people on the ground who are trying to feed children. So I think that they are very worried.
TWILLEY: This sucks, because what the story of Huntington, West Virginia, actually tells us is that school lunch is not broken beyond repair. We have something that can be made to work, with just a bit of help. We don’t need a revolution.
BLACK: That said, what do we need? We need more money. We don’t need five dollars a lunch like Alice Waters wants. But, you know, when you have one hand tied behind your back, there’s really only so much you can do.
GRABER: So, yes, we do need more money for school lunches, but not dramatically more money. Instead, the people in charge—Jane says they’re what really matters.
BLACK: And I think if we want to change school lunch, one of the most important things that we can do is make sure that the people who are in charge of school lunch are educated, motivated, and well-paid.
TWILLEY: As part of her research into school lunch, Jane visited two schools in Boston. They were basically across the street from each other but the school district boundary ran down the middle of the street.
BLACK: And so in one school, you had this very young woman. She was a trained nutritionist, she was very interested in healthy food, and the food was pretty good, pretty decent. And, on the other side of the road, you had this guy who was, you know, sort of ready for retirement and wasn’t really interested in food. He’d probably had a different job in school administration and gotten kicked over to the food thing and he was just ticking boxes on a list and the food was crap. And so it really matters who’s in charge.
GRABER: Until recently, you could have been anything in the school system—a janitor, a business administrator—and eventually become the food service director.
BLACK: There were forty-one states that had no requirements for food service personnel, until just recently last year, the USDA did put out some guidelines that required that people have a little bit of nutrition education. And, look, that’s great, but it’s going to take a long time for the people that are currently in the jobs to retire and to hire new people that are held to the guidelines. And so even though that’s a step in the right direction, it’s not something that I see is going to change any time in the next five or even ten years.
TWILLEY: Oy. Nothing is easy when it comes to school lunch. But that doesn’t stop people from caring about it. In fact, every single expert we spoke to this episode agrees: school lunch really matters. Jennifer, Andrew, Jane, and Elizabeth—they’re all on the same page: Feeding children is important.
RUTLEDGE: Well, it’s important because we have a poverty problem in this country and we have a poverty problem in the world and we have a lot of children who are hungry. And for many children—and it sounds hyperbolic to say it—but for many children it is the one solid meal we know that they’ll get a day.
RUIS: School lunches, for all of the negative press they often get, have been and continue to be one of the most popular federal programs of all time. And they are a significant element of our nutrition health infrastructure.
BLACK: So you’ve got kids that are getting 50 to 100 percent of their calories at school. And it matters whether they’re healthy or not.
RICHIE: We’re finding that healthy meals that are above and beyond the current standards have positive impact, so I think certainly keeping the current standards makes a lot of sense. And we’re finding that maybe even making them healthier could have bigger impacts.
GRABER: But there are actually other reasons why feeding children school lunch matters.
TWILLEY: For me, I had always thought about this issue in terms of kids, and it’s not hard to understand why it matters from that perspective. What I hadn’t realized until we talked with Jennifer is the huge impact school lunch has on the place of women in society. Whether school lunch exists or not is make or break for women as full economic citizens—i.e. equal citizens
GRABER: In a way, we can think of school lunch as reflecting priorities in a culture. Three big ones stand out to us. How do we want to support our farmers—should we really be paying for overproduction? Then there’s the question of how we see our responsibility towards children? And how should we be empowering women?
TWILLEY: School lunch is the place where all of these values around gender, the role of the state in protecting children, and the kind of food system we want—they all come together. So, yeah, it matters.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Andrew Ruis, Jennifer Geist Rutledge, Elizabeth Ramirez Ritchie, and Jane Black. We have links to their books, research, and stories on our website, gastropod.com. Definitely check them out, school lunch is super interesting.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to all of you who sent in your school lunch stories. We loved them! They were funny, they were moving, and they captured really amazing memories. Lots of you told us about fabulous programs going on around the country too, which was really inspiring. We wish we could have included them all, but here’s just a couple more to see us out—good, bad, and, of course, complicated—like school lunch.
WINSON: Hey Cynthia and Nicola, this is Winson Law, and here’s my story. I was the kid who brought a cold, crusty Rubbermaid tupperware with white rice and whatever dinner my grandmother made the night before. On some days, it was caramelized catfish with pickled mustard greens, and other days, it was steamed Chinese broccoli with some ground pork garnish. My lunch was pungent and foreign to the noses of my mostly white classmates in the mostly white Seattle private school that I attended mostly on financial aid. So if my family’s socioeconomic standing and where we came from didn’t already make me feel less included, what I brought to school everyday made me feel ashamed. While I loved eating my grandparent’s food, I eventually told them that I wanted to eat what the cafeteria made. And the cafeteria frequently served things like grilled cheeses and tacos and pasta, foods my grandparents didn’t understand and definitely would not send me to school with. I should have proudly microwaved that Thai basil eggplant with salted pork and marched right up to the popular kids’ table, because they didn’t know what they were missing out on.
DELMONAI: My name is Delmonai Thomas, I’m from Henry Ford Academy school of creative studies and I’m 16 years old. I don’t like that the food tastes processed, like I just got a TV dinner or something like that. And we can have more fresher vegetables. Just my personal opinion, I always thought that schools should have a thing where students should cook their own food because it teaches life skills.
RACHEL: Hello, my name is Rachel, and my lunch story is a wonderful one. We were living in Paris in 1975 when my mother became very ill and needed to go back to the United States. My father, my sister, and I had to figure out how to manage without her. To make us feel loved and to help us not miss our mother he would create these elaborate bag lunches for us. He would wrap cornichons individually like mini-swans, he would hide yummy cookies in layers of tinfoil like little presents. To this day I remember my excitement when it was lunch time and all my girlfriends hovering around to see what magic awaited in my little sack lunch.