Food Fight

The unreal school lunch debate


I will admit a certain prejudice against the school lunch program. It all started in 1966 when, as a first grader, I paid my $1.00 a week and got in return the worst food ever concocted outside of a prison camp—a diet heavy on collard greens and fish sticks. Even the spaghetti was inedible, a congealed mass of nearly sauceless pasta that bore no resemblance to my mother's specialty.

"What did you have for lunch today?" she would sometimes ask. "A roll," I would reply, then lamely try to explain why dishes I liked at home I refused to eat at school. Midway through the second grade, school officials finally relented and let students bring their own lunches.

Years later, as a high school freshman, I worked as an aide to the teacher who administered the free lunch program, helping her with the paperwork. She often noted that the school did nothing to verify eligibility; the only deterrents to massive fraud were honesty and shame.

Then, toward the end of my freshman year in college, the cafeteria workers went on strike, and the university gave us back our food money. Even with no kitchen facilities and no chain restaurants in town, for the next six weeks we ate better than ever. And most of us saved money. Institutional food, administered by monopolist nutritionists, is both lousy and expensive.

I kept waiting for stories like these during this spring's school lunch debate in Washington. "Get real," I'd yell at the latest blathering idiot on television. "These are school lunches we're talking about. Everybody hates them." But unreality was the rule. The whole debate seemed to be conducted by people who had never eaten lunch in a school cafeteria (except for photo ops), never packed a bag lunch, and never talked to program administrators off the record. Amid the sound bites and symbols, no one asked the obvious questions.

In typical Washington fashion, the major issue was whether increasing school lunch spending by 4.5 percent rather than 5.3 percent constituted a cut and, hence, a "Republican war on children." The GOP won that one on a technicality. But once again Republicans found themselves—à la Bush, Reagan, and Nixon—bragging that they, too, are big spenders.

The real issue in the food fight, however, wasn't spending. It was control. The bill passed by the House eliminated federal rules dictating the management and content of school lunches. But because Republicans never treated school lunches as part of real life, they left their most potent and important arguments on the shelf. They missed the chance to make the point that Washington regulators lack the incentives, imagination, and knowledge to run the nation's lunchrooms.

"Our nation's school lunch program is soon to be splintered into 50 new programs all to be haphazardly established," objected Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), who calls himself "a leading anti-hunger advocate in the Congress." Hall declared that "national standards, in this case the guarantee of at least one hot meal, protect all children no matter where they live."

Hall's comment represents the same thinking that led my elementary school to ban sack lunches, lest mothers stock them with non-bureaucratically approved goodies. He believes that we cannot trust state governments, let alone individual school cafeterias, or—horror of horrors—individual families to decide what to give children for lunch. How does he imagine that 68 million American families manage to feed themselves without his guidance?

Consider a lunch that wouldn't pass Hall's muster: a peanut butter sandwich, an orange, two Oreos, a pint of milk, and a multivitamin pill. Pricing the ingredients at a particularly expensive supermarket, and adding in the necessary paper and plastic bags, that lunch costs $1.46, 44 cents less than the federal government gives states for "free" lunches. ("Full-price" lunches, like the one President Clinton paid $2.50 for at a Maryland school, get a 31.5-cent subsidy.) Minus the vitamin and cutting the orange and milk in half, that lunch is pretty much what I ate as a child.

But such lunches are illegal for schools to sell. For some reason born of Truman-era food superstition, school lunches must be hot. During the lunch fight, I waited eagerly for somebody to ask why. But that obvious question just won't get asked when you're busy debating whether it's lying to call a 4.5-percent increase a "cut."

In the real world, however, the question matters. Ovens, grills, and cooks drive up costs tremendously. And requiring hot lunches eliminates many cheap foods that children like—all the foods that are, in fact, staples of middle-class bag lunches. On his p.r. trip to the lunchroom, Clinton ate turkey and beef tacos. A turkey sandwich would have been verboten.

Although bag lunches are as down-home as a construction worker's lunch pail, mentioning them on the floor of Congress would have sounded elitist. It would have injected into the debate the notion that some parents (and even some kids) have not only the funds ($1.46) but the expertise needed to make a healthful lunch. It would have raised the question of why schools even serve lunch—and why they need professional staffs to prepare it. Students are, after all, expected to supply their own clothes and school supplies. Why can't they bring their own lunches?

To ask the question is to answer it. Like the rest of the welfare debate, the school lunch brouhaha is, at its serious heart, about how best to help people who can't cope, whose lives are so disorganized that they have never learned how to put together a decent, inexpensive meal for their children. Knowledge possessed by illiterate peasants all over the world has somehow been lost in America.

Hunger is not the problem. Several years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page series on eating habits in the inner city. Its conclusion: Inner-city residents seek out fatty foods and starches, scorn vegetables, buy lots of convenience foods, and don't know or don't care how to prepare nutritious meals. They aren't hungry, but they are malnourished.

I was struck by the series because its urban findings exactly matched what my brother had seen as a medical student doing free exams in rural South Carolina. He had patients, including grossly obese children, whose medical problems stemmed from eating hot dogs all day long. Today's poor Americans do not have the gaunt, hungry look of Haitians, Cubans, or Depression-era Appalachians. They are, if anything, quite fat.

And regulations and subsidies, the favorite recipe of people like Rep. Hall, are unlikely to solve that problem. In its current form, the school lunch program serves mainly to create jobs for licensed nutritionists and bureaucratic overseers. Having left behind collards and fish sticks, it now serves meals that mirror the poverty diet of fat- and- salt-drenched convenience food.

Loosening controls might, however, do some good. It would allow schools to experiment in ways that could actually teach kids how to make meals without benefit of professional help.

Making a hot lunch is complicated; even turning out the horrors of my elementary school's lunch room requires expertise. Making a cold lunch is simple. The ingredients are obvious, the equipment limited to ordinary cutlery. Feeding children from disorganized families a simple lunch—a model of meals that they could make themselves—would provide not only food but education. And, who knows, some radical innovators might even fire the kitchen staff and let the kids spread their own peanut butter.

But even imagining that possibility requires getting outside the Washington box. You first have to think of lunch as real.