ATLANTA — Even after some 4,700 guiding documents from the United States Department of Agriculture on the country’s new experiment with healthier school lunches, the nation seems to have once again failed to advance a century-long effort to get kids to eat their peas.
Five years after Congress passed the Healthy Hungry-Free Kids Act, an offshoot of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign aimed at curbing childhood obesity, participation in school lunches across the US has declined by 4 percent – or 1.5 million kids – food wastage has gone up, and growing numbers of lunch rooms are operating in the red.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this week blamed dwindling amounts of salt and butter fats in the new federal recipes for the decline in participation, concluding that “it is unlikely that children will be easily motivated to continue to eat foods they find unappealing.”
School lunches have been the subject of jokes, snickers, and outright mockery since at least the 1980s, when federal regulations were proposed that would have classified ketchup and relish packets as “vegetables.” The resulting controversy roared for just over two weeks – when President Reagan stepped in personally to cancel the program – but many Gen Xers still talk about the days when ketchup was a vegetable.
So, the US Congress again faces the existential question of how to make healthy food palatable to picky eaters. (And if they figure it out, could they please let parents of toddlers in on the secret?) The core question for the new school menu as it faces reauthorization hearings next year is straightforward: Should good nutrition be mandated from on high or coaxed into foods that kids like? As Rep. Kristi Noem (R) of South Dakota said earlier this year: Kids “deserve a school meal program … that includes food that they’re actually going to eat.”
But "food they're actually going to eat" has been the holy grail of lunchroom cuisine since almost the first American child picked up the first cafeteria tray.
Celebrating 121 years of hairnets
The first school lunch programs started in Boston in 1894. No word on how long it took for the first complaint to follow, but Harvey Levenstein, author of "Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet," writes that the founders’ efforts to teach kids the “new nutrition” largely failed.
About 50 years ago, a federal survey found that “if 20 million school children had their druthers, the federal school lunch program might serve only hot dogs, hamburgers, steak, fried chicken, desserts, bread and rolls,” as the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1968.
To be sure, the GAO report found that many children’s taste buds are adjusting to the new menus. “It makes you feel better,” Lexi Atzen, a senior, says in a USDA video on the new menu. “When you eat good foods you feel a lot better about yourself, you feel a lot better just in general.”
Moreover, it’s mostly children who pay full price for lunch (usually around $3) that are leaving the program, whereas participation among kids who receive free lunch – the core target group for Mrs. Obama’s gambit – has actually inched up.
For its part, the USDA, which is tasked with setting the guidelines that districts have to follow to receive federal reimbursement, says – rather bravely, one might add – that the palatability problem is more “lack of culinary training” among US cafeteria workers than lower salt and fat requirements. (Many school districts reported that lunch lady morale is in the dumps under the new regime, because, as every parent knows, it hurts to watch kids throw away food you spent hours preparing.)
On top of that, there is, in fact, evidence that the federal one-size-fits all approach to a better diet is not ideal. For one, the push this year to serve only whole wheat grains meant lots of pasta went uneaten, as the whole wheat variety quickly began “to lose structural integrity,” which made it “unappealing to students,” as the GAO wrote. Worse, the new menu has put de facto bans on some regional food choices that kids actually liked. Kids in some North Carolina lunch rooms almost revolted after popular chicken biscuits were discontinued, given that it’s scientifically impossible to make a righteous Southern biscuit with 100 percent whole wheat flour.
For now, the USDA says it’s allowing school districts to file for a “temporary pasta exemption” as kids get used to the whole wheat versions.
Potato chip black market
But meanwhile, the GAO found that many students are simply bypassing the new dictums by sneaking salt and pepper shakers onto campus, even creating a clandestine market for potato chips. Technology has added pizzazz to the age-old lunch line complaints. Some students are Tweeting sad-looking lunch trays with the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama.
“There’s a black market," says Julie Gunlock, who directs the Culture of Alarmism Project at the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, joking about "kids with trench coats lined with potato chips and other things they can’t get at school.”
“God bless innovation and entrepreneurialism, but that’s not the goal of reforming the school lunch program," says Ms. Gunlock. "It was intended to get kids to eat their veggies because they like them, but instead it’s created a culture where kids are disgusted by the food because they’re not allowed to flavor it. So, it’s had an opposite effect, and created a much bigger problem.”
The debate over the new federal school lunch program revolves around fundamental differences not just in culinary, but political, world views. As New York University sociologist Marion Nestle, author of “Food Politics,” writes in an e-mail: This pushback against new school menus “is about politics, not salt.”
Professor Nestle posits that the pushback to the new menu is fueled by the large food conglomerates that provide much of the prepared foods to cafeterias across the country.
And at the end of the day, it’s pretty hard to quibble with the first lady’s motivation: To raise overall nutrient levels in government-funded foods to offset bad food habits.
But for critics like Rep. Reid Ribble (R) of Wisconsin, the "federalized" approach to enforcing good nutrition is counterproductive.
“Healthy eating has more to do with what children like and how you can help shape those tastes than it is with some policy decision,” he told a Hudson Institute seminar earlier this year. He added that he “never ate” broccoli as a kid, but that, “I like it now as an adult, but it has to be prepared with lots of Wisconsin cheese on it.”
In other words, tastes thankfully change. The enduring struggle between adults and children over that blob of green on the corner of the plate, however, isn’t likely to end any time soon.
Indeed, the GAO report confirmed once again that, despite everybody’s best efforts, the vast majority of school children still won't eat their legumes. That's peas to you.