America has a school lunch problem. You don’t have to be in a cafeteria yourself to see it. We hear about it in the news amid reports of students getting their arms stamped or their hot lunches thrown away because of “lunch debt.” We can see it in the dumpsters, too -- one study of Boston middle schools showed that students discarded roughly $432,349 worth of food annually.
We can see it in the school menus, where companies like Domino’s vie to get their products onto the plates of America’s children, and in class schedules that sometimes allow kids just 15 minutes to eat their lunch. We can see it in the federal regulations that won’t subsidize dairy-free milk alternatives, despite the fact that non-white students are often lactose-intolerant.
It’s a chronically broken system, as every fourth-grader with a styrofoam tray can tell you. But as flawed as the National School Lunch Program is, it’s currently a critical component in the diets of many children.
The hot lunches served in schools are particularly critical for families that qualify for subsidized lunch. In the 2012-2013 school year, over half of America’s students were eligible for free or reduced price lunches. Crucially, 16% of America’s children were living in food-insecure households as of 2017-2019. For food-insecure families, school lunches can be a child’s best chance at a reliable, hot and nutritious meal. But the meals themselves can be hit or miss.
Michelle Obama’s 2010 revamp of the NSLP’s dietary guidelines directed school lunches toward healthier options. But still, some students are choosing to throw out the fruit or vegetable they’re now mandated to take -- one Connecticut study of middle schools showed that over 50% of salad and over 60% of broccoli served went uneaten.
Melissa Mortazavi’s “Consuming Identities” provides an eye-opening look at the way the very construction of school lunches has the power to alienate students and fail to meet their needs. As Mortazavi points out, the NSLP doesn’t actually mandate that schools consider “ethnic and religious preferences” when planning lunch menus. School menus lack dishes from nonwhite American communities, she adds, and they rely on dairy and meat products that many nonwhite and non-Christian students cannot eat. Mortazavi explains that these meals fail to meet the nutritional needs of these children and strengthen an othering, stigmatizing “ideal of American identity.”
Besides alienating students, the omnipresent status of meat and dairy on school lunch menus only serves to worsen greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. The waste and alienation will continue until American cafeterias are able to serve up healthy and appetizing meals that take into account the many cultures, traditions and viewpoints of American students.
Much of the daily lunch decisions are left up to school districts, so long as their meals meet the USDA standards for receiving federal funding. With schools left on their own to figure out how to best meet the standards on a budget, it’s no wonder they’re turning to Domino’s and an array of branded “healthy” junk food. Strapped for resources, schools have no incentive to seek out different options like organic, local or scratch-made foods, or kosher, halal and vegetarian alternatives. If the USDA ramped up funding for the NSLP, particularly for low-income school districts where lunch revenues are low, districts could finally have funds to pursue menu development and training programs that can improve the quality of their meals.
In addition to increased funding, the federal government should also reexamine its nutrition standards for school lunches and create a working group to develop more holistic standards that account for regional and cultural differences, as well as differing nutritional needs among students. Mortazavi suggests that the USDA create a database of compliant school lunches sourced from different ethnic and racial communities. Creating better meals is the first step in ensuring kids actually eat the food they have to take from the lunch line.
Beyond just the food itself, though, the USDA should take this opportunity to use its funding leverage to ensure kids are getting the meal experience they deserve. No more lunch-shaming, no more miniscule meal breaks, no more Domino’s in the lunch line. If the federal government embedded higher standards in its funding regulations, and increased school funding, cafeterias would no longer have to resort to desperate cost-saving measures.
Along with a re-examination of its standards, the USDA should commit to offering subsidies for dairy and meat alternatives so that schools can give their students the choice they deserve. It may upset a few lobbying groups, but it could also jumpstart the production of plant-based foods that will help curb America’s emissions problem -- and hopefully introduce kids to healthier habits.
Finally, the U.S. should look towards creating a universal free lunch program. Alexandra Ossola for Quartz points out that schools in America are currently giving out free lunches to all students through coronavirus-related legislation. She argues that providing universal free lunch to all students could help improve both school performance and long-term health outcomes. By making all school lunches free, Ossola suggests, “lunch debt” is eliminated, as well as the stigma of eating free lunch that can keep some eligible students from participating.
Today’s school lunch system will require a great deal of reshaping and reforming. But if we want our children to succeed tomorrow, we owe it to them to serve a good lunch today.
The views expressed above are solely the author's and are not endorsed by the Virginia Policy Review, The Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, or the University of Virginia. Although this organization has members who are University of Virginia students and may have University employees associated or engaged in its activities and affairs, the organization is not a part of or an agency of the University. It is a separate and independent organization which is responsible for and manages its own activities and affairs. The University does not direct, supervise or control the organization and is not responsible for the organization’s contracts, acts, or omissions.