Cut Now, Pay Later: Critics Assail New Lunch Program

By Susan Walton — September 28, 1981 7 min read
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The Reagan Administration’s proposal to reduce the quantity--and perhaps the quality--of federally supported school lunches has drawn a barrage of criticism, and evoked both jokes and indignant protests about ketchup, pickle-relish, and tofu.

But Congressional hearings held last week gave a new twist to the continuing drama: Under the 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act that mandated budget cuts in the school-lunch program, the Administration’s proposal to change nutritional requirements may in fact be illegal.

In hearings before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education, Democratic members charged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (usda) would be acting illegally in mandating the cuts because the reconciliation bill specifies that cuts be made “without impairing the nutritional value of meals.” The members cited a report by the usda Task Force on Meal Patterns, which acknowledges that without a “nutritional rationale,” the lowered standards would compromise the “nutritional integrity” of the program.

Nonetheless, the Democrats say, usda proceeded to propose the cuts because the agency had few alternatives that could result in immediate cost reductions for school districts.

G. William Hoagland, administrator for usda’s Food and Nutrition Service, said that the proposed changes were cleared with the department’s general counsel. Mr. Hoagland also presented usda’s rationale for proposing lower standards. Cutting the nutritional requirements will permit schools to save their lunch programs, Mr. Hoagland said. If districts were not given a means of cutting costs quickly, they would be burdened by prohibitively high prices, which could cause many children to drop out of the program.

‘Burden of Proof’

During the sometimes-stormy hearings, which were punctuated by raised voices and the sound of fists pounding the tables, the Democratic subcommittee members left little doubt that they would do all they could to prevent the cuts from going into effect.

“The advantages are expressed in fiscal terms,” Congressman George Miller, Democrat of California, told Mr. Hoagland. “The disadvantages continue to be expressed in nutritional terms. The burden of proof is on you to show you haven’t compromised the nutritional quality.”

Other witnesses--educators, pediatricians, and parents--argued both sides of the question, and during the two days of testimony, illuminated some of the nutritional, political, and emotional issues surrounding the complex program.

They suggested--by the tenor and amount of testimony and wide divergence of opinion on the topic--that the National School Lunch Program is not one discrete program, but several, each with a different clientele. And although the impact on children varies widely, there are some for whom the program’s effects--nutritional and educational--extend far beyond a daily half-hour in school cafeterias.

Witnesses reminded the subcommittee members that the 35-year-old National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 to prevent in school children the nutritional deficiencies discovered among World War II recruits.

That problem was considered quite serious, they pointed out. Although they agreed that the situation has improved considerably, they also emphasized their belief that the need for the program has not vanished, and will not disappear in the near future.

The issue of child-nutrition programs has ignited a professional debate in which one side insists that the changes in the lunch program will bring about hunger in the short run and widespread malnutrition in the long run, while the other side declares that reducing the scope of the program will have more positive than negative effects. Both sides, however, agree that further budget cuts would be disastrous.

The controversy over school lunches is probably as significant politically as it is nutritionally. Democratic members of the subcommittee regard the cuts as a clear sign that small children--whom they regard as the least powerful group affected by reduced federal spending--will fall through the holes of the Reagan Administration’s much-touted “social safety-net.” Their comments in the hearings indicate that the issue will probably be decided in the political arena or by the courts, not by nutritional experts.

Many of the criticisms of the proposed changes have focused on one narrow aspect: Under the proposed guidelines, foods normally considered condiments--ketchup and relish--could be served as vegetables. However, school dieticians and food-service directors say that this is not only highly unlikely, it “denigrates the integrity of school food-service directors.”

The proposed changes also permit schools to count cookies and other sweet, baked goods as bread, provided they are made with enriched flour. Observers agree that this would be nutritionally unwise in many respects, but they also note that it would be financially unsound.

Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, pointed out at the recent hearings that the changes represent “a poor lesson in nutrition,” and added that there is no financial basis for them, either. “Bread is far cheaper than cakes and cookies,” he noted.

But Dr. Jacobson also pointed out that tofu, seeds, and nuts, all of which could be counted as protein under the new patterns, are indeed nutritionally sound. Montgomery County, Md., public-school food-service director Joanne Styer agreed.

She pointed out that during the Carter administration, her school district had received $37,000 worth of peanuts, high in protein, which could not be counted in the children’s protein allotment.

Although cutting 10 ounces of milk and several slices of bread per week won’t hurt some children, there is evidence that it will make a difference for others. According to Mississippi pediatrician Dr. Aaron Shirley and others, studies have shown that poor children receive between 40 and 50 percent of their daily nutritional needs from school lunches.

Dr. Shirley described the plight of one family, calling it a common situation. “In a recent interview with a rural family during summer recess, three children of elementary-school age were anxious for school to start. When asked why, they replied, ‘At school we get full when we eat.’ When asked if they got enough to eat in the summer when school was out, the answer was, ‘No’.”

Dr. Shirley described more general effects of child nutrition programs, observed in his medical practice and also his participation in the 1967 and 1977 studies, Hunger in America, sponsored by the Field Foundation. “When what was seen in 1967 is compared to what existed 10 years later,” Dr. Shirley told the subcommittee, “there is one factor which stands out. The people of 1977 were just as poor in terms of income and shelter. However, the gross hunger and malnutrition which prevailed in 1967 were not evident.”

For poor children, reducing the nutritional requirements would leave a vacuum that parents’ income could not compensate for, according to many observers.

For example, Ms. Brenda Lucas, a parent from Baltimore, told the subcommittee that she and her husband were able to “get by” without food stamps or welfare, but they relied on the school lunch program to make sure that their five children got at least one substantial meal each day. Ms. Lucas expressed concern that reductions in school lunches could have a serious and lingering effect on her children. “I know that nutrition plays a big part in their ability to learn in school,” Ms. Lucas told the subcommittee. “I also know that without a good education, they won’t have much of a chance in making it in today’s job market.”

Dr. Raymond M. Wheeler, a physician from Charlotte, N.C., who also worked with the Field Foundation studies, affirmed Ms. Lucas’ testimony as he described the plight of the malnourished child, who becomes trapped in a “vicious cycle.” Dr. Wheeler told the congressmen that he believes that these problems have been lessened considerably by the school-lunch program and other child nutrition programs. In addition to the risks in early childhood, Dr. Wheeler said, “They are more likely to be anemic and undersized for their age. They certainly do less well in school, many become slow learners who wind up living in poverty and producing children who grow up in the vicious cycle which condemns them to lives of marginal function. Behavioral disturbances and physical disabilities are common. High rates of failure in school lead to low levels of employability and productivity.”

“Do you believe we are really saving more federal money in the long run by spending now?” Carl. D. Perkins, subcommittee chairman and Democrat of Kentucky asked Dr. Wheeler.

“No question about it,” Dr. Wheeler replied.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 1981 edition of Education Week as Cut Now, Pay Later: Critics Assail New Lunch Program


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