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“We can sell a Snickers bar, but can’t sell licorice. We can’t sell Swedish Fish, we can’t sell Starburst, we can’t sell Skittles, but we can sell ice cream, we can sell the Snickers bar, Milky Ways, all that stuff,” said Burton.
These anecdotes help illustrate the point that food served in public school cafeterias has—along with prison food—long been one of the best arguments against the singular notion that big, mean corporations are responsible for all of the food problems we face in America. After all, public-school lunches are government creations. They’re subsidized by government, provided by government, served by government, and paid for by government. And they’re often gross, unhealthy, and wasteful.
But supporters of the National School Lunch Program, not surprisingly, argue that what’s needed are reforms, improvements, rejiggering, and—of course—more money.
For example, I appeared on Laura Ingraham’s radio show yesterday and debated Janet Poppendieck, the author of the book Free For All and one of the leading voices in the school lunch reform movement. In her book, Poppendieck argues that all students in pubic schools should be force to eat USDA food free of charge to reduce what she calls the "stigma" of free food that low-income kids currently face.
While Poppendieck backtracked from that goal on the air yesterday—saying that kids who choose not to buy a school lunch might not in fact "undermine" and "stigmatize" the school lunch program, as she's previously claimed—any talk of a free, universal, USDA-funded school lunch for all demands an alternative.
Is there another way? I say yes.
This week my nonprofit, Keep Food Legal, launched a new project we’re calling Opt Out of School Lunch. The project urges families to take back control of what their kids are eating by preparing a simple brown-bag lunch for each child, every school day. We want families to stop fighting for the unreachable goal of having the USDA provide food that is both objectively “better” and that appeals to everyone. There are too many special interests (including the government itself) involved in deciding what “food” ends up on a child’s plate.
We’re appealing to students, educators, businesses, nonprofits, and taxpayers to work together to find solutions for kids whose parents may not be able to afford to bring a lunch every day. And we’re calling on restaurateurs, caterers, and grocers who often throw away food good enough to bring home and serve to their own families the next day as leftovers to end the senseless and needless food waste and to donate that food to families in need.
In addition to giving control back to families, Opt Out of School Lunch has many other benefits. The program can help improve childhood nutrition, reduce childhood obesity, let schools focus on what should be their core mission of educating students, control federal spending, reduce state and local overhead and costs, attack USDA subsidies, and help the environment by eliminating food waste.
These changes won’t be easy, and they won’t happen overnight. But it’s this sort of transformative change that I think can rightly be labeled as a food revolution.
Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of food freedom—the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, cook, eat, and drink the foods of our own choosing.