Photograph by Laura Taylor
Photograph by Laura Taylor

School Lunches and House Ag Appropriations Bill

The debate over who is serious about real food is about to get seriously real.

Last week the House Appropriations Committee passed the annual agriculture funding bill. Fights over the substantive content of funding bills are usually reserved for the hottest issues, ones that congresspeople take to the mat for ideological reasons or because constituents are noisily banging pots over them, especially in election years. 2014’s food battlefield issue? What a captive audience of 32 million future American leaders eat, usually without choice, every day: school breakfasts and lunches. Schools currently follow 2012 Obama Administration rules that school meals must incorporate more fruits, green vegetables, and whole grains and reduce salt and fat. Republicans claim that schools complain healthier lunches are expensive and kids don’t eat them, which leads to hungrier kids and colossal food waste when all that lovely produce ends up in the trash. It’s all too much, too quickly, and schools and kids need time and flexibility to adapt. It’s tough to turn from serving pizza as a vegetable to preparing entrée salads on a dime. So the Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee included a provision in the funding bill that requires the Obama administration to create a waiver process for school districts to opt out of the healthier school lunch rules for some period of time if the rules are too burdensome.

Democrats supported a doomed amendment to remove the proposed waiver process from the funding bill. The bill will be considered by the full House over the next couple of weeks and will likely pass with the waiver in place. However in introducing the amendment, Democrats brought the school-lunch issue and the question of which side is truly serious about good food to the court of public opinion, received tremendous media coverage (present company included), and made clear that they will raise the issue when the final funding bill is negotiated with the Democratic-controlled Senate before the election.

2014’s school-lunch debate may be a harbinger of 2016 as the year that good food became a serious Presidential debate topic. But given the sea of controversial policies funded through the agriculture appropriations bill, I’ve been wondering why school lunch met the threshold for this year’s hot food issue (putting aside for a moment the powerful social media phenomenon, in which kids publicly post photos of their hated school food).

@MichelleObama my school lunch while eating with my daughter. Only other choice was a scoop of salad. This is sad!

— Megan Howell (@Howelady) March 14, 2014

A few things particularly complicate the current conversation. That said, we all know the fight isn’t really about chefs in school cafeterias whose flaky biscuits and corn tortillas are being stymied by Michelle Obama; if it were about authenticity, school cafeterias would need a lot longer than a short-term waiver to adjust tastes and expectations.

First, the players reflect American cultural lines that have defined us for centuries: cornbread country vs. baguette nation. Rep. Robert Aderholt, leader of the waiver effort, hails from Alabama, the fifth most obese American state. The Democratic figurehead is Michelle “Let’s Move!” Obama of Chicago, whose husband famously (although not nearly famously enough) asked a bunch of farmers at a 2007 Iowa Rural Issues Forum, “Anyone gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” Individuals don’t like being told what they can eat, especially by someone who doesn’t get their way of eating, which is such a fundamentally human characteristic. Individual regions must be able to express themselves through food; now-famous examples of rejected whole-wheat tortillas in Arizona and whole grain biscuits in the south show that this is a battle not just over healthy eating but over culinary sacred cows.

Second, the President and First Lady’s food agendas are so entwined and cover a lot of ground. Recent first ladies’ agendas have been mostly of the Public Service Announcement flavor (“Just Say No to Drugs,” literacy, education), with Hillary Clinton’s health care reform as a notable exception. But Michelle Obama’s food and activity agenda blurs lines between PSA and policy, between a feel-good cause everyone can agree with and politics. Mrs. Obama publicly spoke out against the waiver proposal and published an op-ed in the New York Times. Any time the unelected presidential spouse gets involved in congressional appropriations, people get itchy. (I am dying to see if the same holds true for potential First Gentleman Bill Clinton. Also I can’t wait to see the parties he throws, which will be amazing and will probably all involve Bono.)

Third, lunch is just as much a part of curriculum as any other part of the school day, as society aims to educate a whole person in an ever-more-complex world. Lunch isn’t testable but even in the most challenging of lunchrooms it’s a time to learn about and from human interaction and food’s integral role in our lives. If that all sounds a bit highbrow, just think of whether your educational experience would have been as complete—not enjoyable or unenjoyable but complete—without mealtime. And kids can’t learn on junky food or empty bellies.

As adults, we’ve all experienced the lack of focus that accompanies a heavy work lunch, the ill-timed hamburger before a big meeting. And most people without financial incentives to the contrary agree that we should feed our kids well to improve their ability to learn. Food waste, school districts’ lack of funds for implementation of healthy meal guidelines, and kids not eating lunch are huge concerns. But it’s a complicated ball of economics, class differences, geographic cultural lines, some gender politics and, at the bottom of it, kids maligning school food. Which predates all of us and we have no chance of regulating.