Diet Detective Interview with School Lunch Advocate Dr. Janet Poppendieck: The “How,” “What” and “Why” of School Lunch (Part 1)

by Charles Platkin, PhD

I’ve met Dr. Poppendieck on several occasions, and her passion, expertise and overall immersion in the problems associated with school food are impressive. This is the first of a two–part interview.

Diet Detective: So, how did you become interested in school food?

Janet Poppendieck: In the early 1970s, I took time off from dissertation research to serve as interim director of something called the National School Breakfast Campaign. It was a project of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), and although I only spent about six months doing it, I learned several things that stayed with me. The first was the importance of school meals to the health of low–income children and the economic survival of their families.

The second was that the structure of the program, the complicated three–tier eligibility requirements for free, reduced–price and full–price meals, was a major headache for school administrators and a source of shame for children. And the third was that advocacy can make an enormous difference in the performance of programs like school food. I kept all these things on the back burner over the years while I worked on other aspects of hunger and food policy. Then, when childhood obesity began making headlines, I decided it was time to take a closer look at school food. I wrote Free For All in the hope that the renewed interest in children’s diets might provide an impetus for much needed change in our school meal programs.

Diet Detective: Why is school food so critical to our children’s welfare and yet so controversial?

Janet Poppendieck: It is critical because there are millions of children in the United States who depend on school food as their primary food source. In far too many households, there are not balanced meals, not real meals at all. Parents are working multiple jobs, or they lack cooking skills, or they are incapacitated, or they just don’t have enough money. So poverty makes school food critical for some children, but I don’t want to give the impression that school food is important only for poor children.

All children learn better if they eat healthily, and in our society affluence is no guard against poor eating habits. We are surrounded by foods designed to appeal to our cravings for fat, salt and sugar, but lacking in essential nutrients. These foods are heavily advertised to children. The packaged–goods and fast–food industries spend literally billions of dollars each year on marketing food to children, so all our children, rich and poor and everybody in between, need an opportunity to learn what constitutes a healthy diet and to develop a taste for fresh, healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables.

And this is where the controversy comes in. In too many schools, the meals in the cafeterias are not models of healthy eating. In the early 1980s, Congress sharply reduced the subsidy for school food. One result was that the quality of the offerings declined, and many paying children dropped out of the program, leaving school food–service operations with fewer customers and smaller federal contributions. As a means of cutting labor costs, many schools moved to bulk convenience foods (defrost and reheat)­ with heavy reliance on canned fruits and vegetables, which are the easiest to store. At the same time, in an effort to regain their child customers, many began offering fast–food clones and selling youngsters’ (heavily advertised) favorite foods a la carte.

The overall result was a debasement of the school food menu and a reduction in the capacity of school kitchens to produce fresh, healthy meals. Both the equipment and the skills were long gone by the time many parents and nutrition advocates got involved in the last few years.

Diet Detective: You talk about the school food program as “accidental.” Can you explain?

Janet Poppendieck: I call it an accidental program because federal participation in school food began as the result of a series of accidents. In the fall of 1933, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt was confronted with major price–depressing surpluses of farm products. One of the most urgent was an impending glut on the hog market, and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) decided to forestall this glut by purchasing and slaughtering millions of baby pigs. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

The piglets escaped from the pens at the slaughterhouses and ran squealing down the streets of Omaha and Iowa City. In Chicago, processors could not find a use for the tankage,­ a sort of liquefied pig,­ that resulted from the slaughter of pigs too small for the mechanical processing equipment. They dumped some of it in old gravel pits, the weather turned warm and a great stench arose, followed by clouds of blue flies. People all around the country protested the destruction of food in the face of widespread suffering and want.

The Roosevelt administration stepped in and declared that it would salvage the pig meat,­ and other farm surpluses,­ and distribute them to the unemployed. A few years later, when the reorganization of relief closed off distribution channels, the AAA began donating the surplus farm products to schools for use in school lunch programs. Rules that were made to govern a temporary distribution of surplus products grew with the program, and by the time a permanent national program was enacted at the end of World War II, these rules had become the fundamentals of the National School Lunch Program. Funds for the new program came, in part, from a special permanent appropriation that set aside 30 percent of the nation’s customs receipts to help farmers by supporting prices and managing surpluses. This is why school food is overseen by the Agriculture Committee of the U.S. Senate and administered by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Diet Detective: What are the more “upsetting” issues regarding school lunch?

Janet Poppendieck: Most distressing are the process of application and the stigma created by the procedure in the lunchroom. Some schools work very hard to protect the privacy of participating children, but by the time kids reach middle school, many look down on anyone eating the nutritionally regulated meal. The “cool” kids go out to lunch or order from the a la carte line.

I also believe that the situation in which schools are selling food to children puts those children, and behind them the food advertisers and food companies, in charge of the menu. The marketing mentality that has overtaken school food service may have had some salutary effects on customer service, but I think it drives the menu in the direction of nuggets and patties, pizza and fries. “Our children are our customers,” food–service workers told me; “We have to give them what they want,” and what they want is shaped by hours of annual exposure to food advertising.

I would like to see all school meals paid for by the federal government, and free to all students (regardless of family income); I do not think that local school districts can absorb these costs right now. We could pay for such meals by ending the Bush tax cuts for the super wealthy, or by closing the loopholes in the tax code. We could do it if we cared enough about how our children eat, and we would save money in the long run because we all know that diet is at the root of our costliest health problems. I understand that “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” but how we pay for it is a social choice that is ours to make.

The national school lunch and breakfast programs serve 7 billion meals a year. Think of the potential positive impact on our environment if these meals were sourced locally and regionally from food produced by sustainable practices. This could be the lever we need to change our whole food system in a more responsible direction.

Diet Detective: During the researching of your book and your experience with school food in general, what’s been your biggest surprise?

Janet Poppendieck: I think the thing that surprised me most was the a la carte sales in the cafeterias. Walk into the lunchroom in nine out of 10 American secondary schools or two–thirds of elementary schools, and you will find the school cafeteria selling foods in competition with the federally subsidized and nutritionally regulated school lunch. In some schools this may be just a few items, but in many, you will find the school food service doing a brisk business in burgers, pizza, fries, nachos, cookies, pastries, sports drinks and chips of all descriptions.

This is an arrangement that comes fairly close to defeating the purpose of the National School Lunch Program. In the first place, it makes a mockery of the carefully wrought federal nutrition standards and the much debated menu–planning systems designed to produce balanced, nutritionally sound meals. School food–service menu planners try to provide healthy meals. But why should a student try an unfamiliar vegetable or acquire a taste for low–fat milk if her favorite foods are available only yards — or inches — away?

In addition, a la carte service stigmatizes the federal lunch. In the situation common in some areas of the country, where a la carte lines are completely separate, it can lead to a form of segregation in the cafeteria. In many California schools, a la carte items are sold at carts and windows that open onto outdoor eating areas.

“Those who were provided with lunch … were the only ones who actually ate the school food. There was also a separate door for them to go to receive their lunch, and they had to eat in the cafeteria because the school dishes and trays were not allowed outside. The system for free/reduced lunches made the students who received them stand out. It divided the high school,” wrote a UC Santa Cruz student describing the lunch set–up in his high school. The California situation is the extreme, a function of school architecture and climate as well as prevailing attitudes, but it is an extreme that highlights a common phenomenon in much of the country.

Once you set up a separate place that sells kids’ favorite foods, the students with money will gravitate to the a la carte line, where they can choose their meals and snacks unconstrained by federal nutrition standards, and fairly soon the rumor will spread that only “poor kids” eat the “school lunch.”

Then, in a classic display of the self–fulfilling prophecy, affluent students, especially at the high school level, will avoid the regular line for fear that someone might think they are getting a free meal. And in the final anomaly, some poor students eligible for free meals will also shun the lunch line, just as hungry as their more affluent peers for social approval and inclusion.

Diet Detective: What is the nutritional profile of the average school meal?

Janet Poppendieck: The nutritional profile of school food is complicated and difficult to summarize, but in short, there are currently two approaches to menu planning to comply with nutrition regulations. One is nutrient based; computers are used to analyze menus to make sure they provide target quantities for the designated nutrients without exceeding ceilings on the percentage of calories from fat. That approach is in use in about a third of the nation’s school districts. It provides flexibility, but it also leads to reliance on fortified products to meet nutrient targets.

Most school districts use some variant of what is called “food based” menu planning. Menus are planned to offer a serving of meat or meat alternative, a serving of grain, a serving of milk and two servings of fruit and vegetables. A policy known as “Offer Versus Serve” or OVS specifies that a meal counts as reimbursable if the student selects any three of those components. The school must offer all five but may serve only three. The combination of OVS with undifferentiated vegetables permits meals that lack a solid nutrient base and are monochromatic.

Recently, the Institute of Medicine has devised recommendations for new meal standards that specify servings of dark green and deep orange vegetables over the course of the week, along with use of whole grains and more reliance on legumes, and a calorie range instead of a calorie minimum. The bad news is that the standards will cost money to implement; Congress had just written a 6 cent per–meal reimbursement increase into the Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation, but the 6 cents will be given only to those schools that succeed in complying with the new standards. The increase will not be there to help them reach that goal.

Diet Detective: What would shock us about the nutritional profile of the average school meal?

Janet Poppendieck: I was shocked by all the monochromatic meals. I saw way too many meals that consisted of golden nuggets (the protein), golden fries or Tater Tots (the vegetable), and a golden roll (the grain). I was shocked by the preponderance of hand–held foods. I was also shocked to find that schools were adding sweetened, flavored milks to their menus in order to meet the federal calorie minimums.

School Food service must comply with two sets of nutrition standards. One goes back to World War II, when the nation faced rationing and government wanted to know how low it could go. These are the minimum requirements that most of us think of as RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances). School lunches are supposed to provide one–third and school breakfasts one–quarter of the RDAs for specified nutrients: protein, calories, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.

The other set of standards goes back to the mid–’90s, when we became more aware of the role of overconsumption in our health problems. These standards are ceilings, most notably a ceiling on the percentage of calories that may be derived from fat (30 percent); they reflect the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that were in effect in 1995. Since that date, school food menu planners have been walking a tightrope between the nutrient minimums, especially the calorie minimums, and the fat ceilings. When schools substituted skim milk for whole milk to lower the percentage of calories from fat, for example, they found themselves falling below the calorie minimums. They couldn’t afford to add a piece of fruit or a serving of vegetables, so they bought milk sweetened with corn syrup to retrieve the missing calories.

Diet Detective: What are the issues and challenges with school meals being required to meet federal nutrition standards?

Janet Poppendieck: There are some inherent problems with relying on federal nutrition standards to protect the quality of school meals. There are just so many points along the chain that something can go wrong. Schools may offer a range of healthy foods, but children may select an unbalanced combination, or they may simply not eat what they have taken. They may displace the vegetables and fruits with a candy bar from the vending machine or a bag of chips they bought on the way to school. They may trade with other children. They may throw half the meal away.

We must have standards, and schools need to be provided with enough money to meet them, but beyond the standards, I think we need to engage the whole child with whole foods. We know that the biggest lack in our children’s diets is vegetables, ­ adults’ diets as well, for that matter. People who have worked in school gardening programs and food–education programs in which children plant, tend, harvest and/or cook fresh vegetables are nearly unanimous in declaring that this is an approach that overcomes children’s resistance to trying new foods in general and plant–based foods in particular. Similarly, I think that engaged parents and community activists can make as big a difference as higher standards.

Diet Detective: You collected “school lunch memories” from college students around the country — what were a few of the comments?

Janet Poppendieck: As I began my research on school food, I asked students to write down their school lunch memories. There were the predictable complaints about meal quality and a few spirited defenses of school food. There were trenchant criticisms of the eating habits of fellow students and frequent, explicit memories of the smell of baking chocolate chip cookies. There were many variants of “I would not have been caught dead in the lunchline,” (“only the socially inadequate ate there,” one student wrote), and some powerful commentaries on the division between the official meal and a la carte.

“The cafeteria was for the poor kids. The food there was gross. Kids who did not eat in the cafeteria were embarrassed to go into it during lunch for fear that others would think they were getting free or discount lunch.” There were painful memories of choosing between free lunch or no lunch at all, but there were also many commentaries on the joys of lunch period as an opportunity to “chill” with your own group, the almost visible division of the cafeteria into a checkerboard of competing turf.


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