Don’t Bite the Hand That Feeds

Although it needs improvement, the federal school lunch program fills a need

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: AP Photo/Matt Houston

Photo: AP Photo/Matt Houston

It’s impossible to discuss schools and food without looking at the federal lunch program — invariably an object of derision for its gray, off-color hotdogs and limp, overcooked vegetables.

It’s so much fun to ridicule school lunches that it’s easy to forget that the program routinely comes under attack from conservatives who obsess that government programs providing free food to the poor are not only a luxury in budgetary hard times, but smack of socialism.

One of the most notorious attacks on the program occurred when President Reagan, during his onslaught against social programs in his first year in office, wanted to cut child nutrition programs by a third. To meet his goal of reducing the size and cost of school lunches, Reagan proposed that ketchup be considered a vegetable. The proposal was roundly criticized, and some anti-Reagan protesters took to chanting, “Ketchup is a condiment — Reagan is a vegetable.”

Even many Republicans were appalled. Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania (a member of the H.J. Heinz Co. family) called the Reagan definition of ketchup “one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose I need not add that I know something about ketchup and relish — or did at one time.”

While the redefinition of ketchup was dropped, cuts remained. It took a decade for the school lunch program to regain the initiative and focus on improvements.

The next attack came in 1995 as part of the “Contract with America” initiated by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. As part of the contract, Republicans proposed to scrap both the federal school lunch program and a program feeding pregnant women and preschool children, and combine them via block grants to the states. But the block grants would have been less than if the programs remained under federal control.

That attack was unsuccessful. Among other reasons, Democrats still controlled the Senate and President Clinton threatened to veto the measure.

Given the size of the federal lunch program — $7.1 billion in fiscal year 2003, not including the breakfast program and agricultural commodities sold to schools at bargain prices — the likelihood is ever-present that school lunches will be slated for cuts. [Note: Other food-related federal programs, such as food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, are targeted for reductions under President Bush’s fiscal year 2007 budget.]

But in recent years the most contentious debates have centered on the need to update the program’s nutritional guidelines and bring them in line with a nation whose children are threatened more by obesity and diabetes than malnutrition and hunger. The debate also includes the growing prevalence of junk foods and sodas sold via vending machines, snack bars, and school stores.

Photo: AP Photo/John Froschauer

Current Legislation

To address these concerns, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is spearheading efforts to pass the 2006 Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protec-tion Act. Introduced in early April, the bill would update 1979 standards defining “foods of minimal nutritional value” and regulate what can be sold in the cafeteria during the lunch hour. The current standard, for instance, emphasizes certain nutrients but doesn’t address issues such as overly caloric foods, transfat, salt, or added sugars. Thus pizzas and Oreos can be sold, but seltzer water cannot.

Perhaps more important, the school lunch program has no control over foods served outside the cafeteria, where junk foods are proliferating most rapidly. A recent report by the Government Accounting Office found that 99 percent of high schools, 97 percent of middle schools, and 83 percent of elementary schools have vending machines, school stores, or snack bars commonly selling junk foods such as soda, candy, salty snacks, and high-fat baked goods.

The Harkin bill would extend standards to the entire school and for the entire day. “Many kids are at school for two meals a day,” Harkin says. “But instead of a nutritious school breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, they are enticed to eat Cheetos and a Snickers bar from the vending machines in the hallway. Junk food sales in schools are out of control.”

Not surprisingly, the bill faces opposition from the soda and snack-food industry.

“The industry’s not going to support a bill that’s not showing results,” Lisa Katic, a consultant to the food and beverage industry, told the Chicago Tribune. The emphasis, she said, should be on having kids get more exercise.

Given public concern over the deteriorating state of young people’s nutrition, however, the food and beverage industry is on the defensive. Legislators in 40 states, for instance, are considering more than 200 bills to limit junk food and soda sales in schools. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has threatened to sue companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes, and their bottlers.

As a result of such pressure, the soda industry entered into a voluntary agreement in early May that would ban most soft drinks from elementary and middle schools, and permit only diet soda, sports drinks, tea, and flavored water in high schools.

The agreement, brokered by former President Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association, was generally well received. But some groups raised concerns that the voluntary pact will not take effect for several years, and even then will only affect 75 percent of schools by 2008–09.

Many are also uneasy that sports drinks — often little more than sugar water with vitamins — will still be sold in high schools, where the bulk of soda sales take place.

For More Information
Food Research and Action Center: 
Center for Science in the Public Interest: 
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, School Meals:

Barbara Miner ( is a freelance journalist in Milwaukee.