Academic journal article Education Next

The School Lunch Lobby: A Charmed Federal Food Program That No Longer Just Feeds the Hungry

Academic journal article Education Next

The School Lunch Lobby: A Charmed Federal Food Program That No Longer Just Feeds the Hungry

Article excerpt

Kids may not like the peas and carrots served up by the nation's school lunch program, but many of the country's leading food companies enjoy the billions of dollars in sales that bring those vegetables to their plates. Behind the overcooked vegetables and steam-table pizza that some 29 million American children confront each school day is an industry that rivals defense contractors and media giants in its ability to bring home the federal bacon--er, the seasoned lettuce cup.

School lunch. A prosaic, even nostalgic event, multiplied hundreds of millions of times--187 billion lunches served--becomes, voila! a $6.6 billion annual all-you-can-eat lunch line, one of the most popular and sturdy of all federal social programs (see Figure 1). Except for food stamps ($27 billion), it is the most expensive of all federal food programs. Pass the gravy!

But there's more. Add to that the $1.8 billion for school breakfasts and the nearly $1 billion school commodities program (a relic of the 1930s, when the Department of Agriculture started buying food and giving it to the schools directly) and you realize that, at $9.5 billion, providing food to school children is a major federal commitment.

Consistent with the intent of the original school-lunch program, created by Congress in 1946 to provide "nutritious agricultural commodities" to children, the major purpose of today's school-lunch program is to ensure that children, especially those from poor and low-income families, have nutritious food at school. The school-breakfast program started as a pilot in 1966 and was made permanent in 1975. How these programs, and the money that travels with them, have grown steadily over the years is a story that illustrates many of the underlying mechanisms of social policy creation in the nation's capital. But can this aging machinery adapt to the demands of a fast-food culture? We created school lunch to feed the hungry. Can we now ask it to fight obesity?

A Special-Interest Stew

Since the strength and longevity of these programs come from an ample and well-balanced diet of public compassion, political sensitivities, and powerful lobbying, change does not come easily. There are occasional food fights between those who have stakes in the programs, but the rules are well established. The interests of the schools--primarily teachers, administrators, school nutritionists, and food-service workers--are represented by groups like the School Nutrition Association and the National School Boards Association, both headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, a stone's throw across the Potomac River from Capitol Hill. With well-funded and sophisticated national organizations, these groups lobby for more federal money while fighting to keep federal mandates to a minimum.

The giant food and beverage industry--names like Tyson and Archer Daniels Midland--is also involved. Its various lobbying arms, including food processors, distributors, service management companies, soft drink makers, and agricultural giants, work to ensure that the government buys food products from its members and keeps schools open to vending machines and a la carte offerings in the school cafeteria, a little oasis of choice that represents millions of extra dollars of revenue each year. Food advocacy and nutrition groups like the Food Research Action Center and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities represent the interests of children who consume the food offered by schools. They are the nutrition watchdogs, providing reliable and timely information about any food issue that comes before Congress.

While these three sets of lobbying groups have opposing interests on some issues--the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, for instance, will throw its weight behind programs for the poor before pushing programs that cover all children--they share the goal of maintaining or increasing federal spending on school lunch and related nutrition programs. …

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