There Is Such a Thing as a Free (and Reduced) Lunch

By Jessica L. Tonn — September 26, 2006 3 min read

As election season heats up, a few members of Congress, and many more congressional aides, filed into a House conference room last week to cast their votes in one of this fall’s hottest races.

Congressional aides sample dishes such as Heddi Spaghetti and Sally Salad last week at a Capitol Hill event recognizing the 60th anniversary of the National School Lunch Program.

The contest: favorite school lunch. The candidates: Pete Pizza, Heddi Spaghetti, Ricky Chicken, Sally Salad, and Rocco Taco.

The School Nutrition Association, based in Alexandria, Va., sponsored the event as part of a campaign to mark the 60th anniversary of the National School Lunch Program and to educate parents and students about the nutritional programs available at their schools. Schoolchildren nationwide have been voting for their favorite dishes this month, and the winner will be announced during National School Lunch Week, Oct. 9-13.

Established in 1946 under President Harry S. Truman, the school lunch program was intended to ensure that every child received at least one hot meal a day. Ninety-five percent of schools now take part in the program, serving lunch to more than 29 million children daily. The program also serves 8.4 million school breakfasts daily.

“Then, the problem was undernutrition, and now it’s overnutrition,” said Penny McConnell, the director of food and nutrition services for the 164,000-student Fairfax County, Va., school district, referring to rising obesity rates among children.

To address the obesity problem, food-service professionals like Ms. McConnell are developing “wellness” policies that set guidelines for all food available on campuses during the school day, including food brought into school and distributed to students. Schools that receive money under the $16 billion Child Nutrition Act, which includes the school lunch program, were required to have such policies in place by this school year. (“Schools Respond to Federal ‘Wellness’ Requirement,” June 14, 2006.)

Under the policies, school lunches are starting to look different. For example, all of the foods at the congressional event were made with whole grains and low-fat cheeses, according to Ms. McConnell.

Traditional favorites such as pizza and spaghetti will still be offered in school cafeterias, said Mary Hill, the president-elect of the SNA and the director of food services for the 32,000-student Jackson, Miss., district, “but the content is changing.”

The Switch to Whole Wheat

Changing ingredients isn’t always an easy, or popular, decision. Ms. McConnell switched to serving whole-wheat hamburger and hot dog rolls in the more than 240 schools in her district last year. The switch caused the price of rolls to double, she said.

Not only do food-service staff members have to persuade districts to spend the extra money for healthier foods, but they also have to entice students to eat the healthier fare. Even changing the flour used in pizza crust from white to whole wheat can put children off, Ms. Hall said.

At the Capitol Hill tasting, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., sampled all five dishes. Though he admitted that he wasn’t sure if his vote would go to Pete Pizza or Rocco Taco, he had no trouble stating his opinion on school lunch programs.

“We need to get rid of reduced-price lunches—make it free for everyone,” he said, saying that all children should benefit from the increasingly nutritional meals. The SNA says children who participate in the school lunch program eat twice as many servings of fruits and vegetables at lunch than those children who bring their meals to school.

“Whatever it costs, I think it’s worth it,” Mr. McGovern said.

Under the NSLP, students who come from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, currently $26,000 for a family of four, are eligible for free lunches, and students whose families are between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level, $37,000 for a family of four, qualify for reduced-price meals.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, one of the sponsors of a bill that would require the Department of Agriculture to update the minimum nutritional value of foods that schools can sell apart from federally reimbursed meals, noted that under current regulations, “schools can sell ice cream, but not popsicles; candy bars but not seltzer water.”

The government should not be allowing poor-quality foods in schools, Sen. Murkowski said, and then paying for the health-care costs associated with obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, once students reach adulthood.

As for her vote? “Maybe spaghetti—the jury is still out.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2006 edition of Education Week as There Is Such a Thing as a Free (and Reduced) Lunch

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