Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Brief History of the National School Lunch Program

School lunch in Tokyo includes rice, soup, fish, pickled cucumbers and milk
The National School Lunch Program is getting a bad rap these days. A free lunch for low-income children? Is it a communist conspirancy? A muddle-headed liberal give-away program? Why are school lunches so high in calories and low in quality? A recent study found that school lunches in the US are nutritionally lacking. Unfortunately, the study was published in Canada. It was also published in California - click here for more info. 

Sometimes, in a case like this, it's instructive to look at the reason such a large and dysfunctional program ever came to be. The reasons are, to say the least, enlightening.  

The National School Lunch Program began in 1946 in the interest of national security. It was also a sort of "give-away" program for farmers, mainly as a way to distribute excess commodity foods, such as cheese. 

During both World Wars One and Two, an astounding 40% of military inductees  of both sexes were rejected for service because of poor health, much of which was related to poor childhood nutrition. Twenty percent alone were rejected for poor dental health. Other medical conditions included rickets, pellagra, and goiter. Also, there were a large number of inductees who lacked basic academic skills. The link between eating and learning was well understood. as it has been for hundreds of years. As an example, an iodine deficiency results in both goiters and mental insufficiency.

Ironically, during the same time period, farmers were unable to sell all the food they produced. One of the tragedies of the Great Depression was that people starved while farmers produced an abundance of food. But people had no money to buy food -- and the farmers needed money to keep producing food. The farmers were forced to destroy tons and tons of good food in the name of economics.
Dairymen dumping milk during the Great Depression
Now, Congress had been supplying funds to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a school lunches since 1932, but funding was spotty. For instance, the first grant went to a few counties in southern Missouri to pay people to cook school lunches. This was actually as part of a jobs program, not out of concern for child nutrition. Most of the grants were year-to-year rather than long-term. School districts were wary of investing in proper lunchroom equipment if they weren't sure they would be able to pay people to operate it or purchase foodstuffs in future years.

So in 1946, the National School Lunch Act was enacted. Section 2 of the Act defines its dual purpose:

 "It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of food and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, operation and expansion of nonprofit school lunch programs.”

The program was successful. As a result, it was expanded to include breakfast and there was even special legislation enacted to improve access to milk. It spurred tons of research on childhood nutrition and the links between nutrition and learning.  The USDA has posted a very interesting History of the National School Lunch Program on its website. Check it out for the full history. 
Partly as a result of these programs, we understand more about good food for kids. It's a shame that the present state of child nutrition in America is in crisis. These days, the biggest reason that military enlistees are turned down is obesity.  Retired military officers are supporting the reform of school lunches, calling obesity a threat to national security. 
School lunch in Washington, D.C.  YUMMY!
This is a fascinating topic that has captured the public's attention. Jamie Oliver, a British celebrity chef,  did a reality series on school lunches that has the industry a-buzzing (he did the same thing last year in a British school lunch program). Top Chef had a special episode where the contestants were expected to cook a tasty, nutritious school lunch within the same budgetary constraints that school districts are forced to live with. It was hilarious. My pet peeve about this episode was that celebrity chef Sam Kass, who was a guest judge, stated categorically that the tomato is a fruit. Shortly after the segment aired, the Obama administration made this guy some kind of school lunch guru. He doesn't even know the difference between a fruit and a vegetable. Clearly, the cult of personality has seduced the liberal left of which I was once a part. 
A vegetable

Naturally, I want to get into the act, too. Over the next few months, this blog will examine the historic context for our national nutritional pickles. Stay tuned and comment often. 


Steve said...

deb help me- please-

I know that a tomato is actually a fruit, a berry to be more exact- we all refer to it as a veg -- but help me understand your objection to calling it a fruit- i'm open to having my mind changed

David said...

Well, the United States Supreme Court did declare the tomato to be a vegetable...

As for Japanese school lunches, there's a couple of interesting points. Students frequently serve the food. On the other hand, I read somewhere that Japanese school sometimes serve whale meat, not by choice, but because of the whale lobby there.

Maybe, someday, our students will cook and serve school lunches for one another - it would save money and maybe help our youth learn to cook.

Deb Duchon said...

Steve - You've been watching Alton Brown, haven't you? Well. Alton's a smart guy, but this time he goofed.

You know how a word can have more than one meaning depending on the context? "Fruit" is one of those words. In botany, "fruit" is a technical term which means the part of a plant that contains seeds. It has nothing to do with edibility. Poison ivy has fruit - and it, too, is a berry ("berry is another technical term for the single "fruit" that is formed from a cluster of flowers as opposed to a single flower. Again, nothing to do with edibility, flavor, nutritional value or human food in any sense.)

Within the culinary context, however, "fruit" refers to an edible plant part that is sweet . Most of the foods we call fruit contain seeds, but there are exceptions, such as rhubarb.

There are other foods that we eat as vegetables that are, in the botanical sense, "fruit". Some examples are eggplant, green beans, and cucumbers. They all contain seeds. But you don't hear them being called "fruit", except by botanists.

The confusion comes from a lawsuit that was filed in the aftermath of the Civil War. Produce buyers in the North were buying tomatoes from farmers in Bermuda. But Southern farmers had plenty of tomatoes to sell. Congress, in an attempt at healing the country, imposed a tariff on imported vegetables, to encourage the produce buyers to purchase domestically grown tomatoes and other veggies.

But the produce buyers were still mad at the South and didn't want to do it. They came up with the argument that tomatoes didn't qualify for the tariff because they were actually fruit (not subject to the tariff). The case wound its way through the court system - all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1893, the Supreme Court declared that tomatoes were vegetables.

You would think this would lay the argument to rest, but it didn't. It seemed to catch hold of the public imagination. Botanists confuse the issue because still like to say that tomatoes are fruit (and, to them, they are). And writers are notorious plagiarists and lousy fact-checkers. Story after story has perpetuated the sorry line that tomatoes are "actually a fruit." This has been going on for more than 100 years.

From a nutritional point of view, the difference between fruits and vegetables has only to do with fructose. They are both high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and other good things. The plant food that we categorize as fruit just happens to be sweet. USDA classifies tomatoes as vegetables, too. See:

Personally, I think the words "fruit" and "vegetable" should be banished from the culinary lexicon. They are so confusing as to be meaningless. What is important is that they are all "plant foods" We can talk about "sweet plants", "starchy plants" and "leafy plants". But that's another blog post.

Hope this helps.

Mrs. Q said...

Thank you for sharing!

S Mitchell said...

To make matters even MORE confusing, Oklahoma legislators made watermelon our state vegetable. . . .

Ellen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ellen said...

Very interesting, especially the link between security and lunch room food, the historic goals and the current sad result.

Deb, I am the Woodlands person you know! Thanks for following my little blog. I surely love yours. So very loaded with intriguing information.