School Principles: School Lunch
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for being with us. Let's go back to early 2020. COVID-19's swift and deadly march across the US had an unprecedented effect on American schools. Within a matter of weeks, schools closed for at least 51 million students, not only ending access to classrooms but also shuttering cafeterias and leaving tens of millions of students without adequate daily nutrition. In response, Congress and the USDA authorized waivers so that schools could provide universal free school lunch for all students.
Now, this meant families could access to go lunch pick-ups or meal deliveries by bus. Now, these waivers continued into 2021, but Republicans have now blocked further extension for the start of this school year. Today, on our back-to-school series, School Principles, we're in the lunchroom where federally supported, universal free lunch has ended for millions of students.
Jennifer Gaddis: My name is Jennifer Gaddis, and I'm an associate professor of Civil Society and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I'm also the author of the book, The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools. Nutrition has so much to do with education. I think first and foremost, when students are hungry or when they aren't getting the proper nourishment, it makes it a lot harder for them to be alert and to have the ability to learn in school. We see all the time that there are links between students' nutrition, and their academic achievement, and also their behavior in schools, but also on their sense of belonging in schools.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do young people eat differently at school than they eat at home? Does food take on different meanings in the school setting?
Jennifer Gaddis: I think so, yes. I think one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that when you're eating in a social environment, the food that you're eating starts to become revealing of not only maybe your family identity or cultural identity, but also what your family might be able to afford, and so, food can take on really symbolic meanings for young people. It can be a real unifier, or it can be a real source of division and difference and bullying in schools. One thing I think that is really important to highlight though is that when we're talking about school meals in the context of the United States, we actually don't do very well, comparatively speaking, to a lot of other countries that have strong national school lunch programs.
We do very, very little in terms of nutrition, or food education, or taking advantage of that opportunity to really use our cafeterias as classroom learning environments.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If we're thinking about the history of school nutrition programs, both breakfast and lunch, what are the big historical water markers we should know about?
Jennifer Gaddis: A lot of times people will say, "Oh, our school meal program started in 1946 at the end of World War II when there was this realization that we really needed to invest in nutrition for youth in this country, and we also needed an outlet for agricultural surpluses." That's part of the story, but I actually find it really important to go deeper into history. I like to talk to people about these programs as really starting in full swing in the 1890s. This was a time period when a lot of women's groups, in particular, got very interested in figuring out how they could use their collective power to create new systems of care provisioning.
Figuring out, how can we actually create some good public options for collectivizing care and ensuring that everyone who needs access to food that is nutritious and affordable has it? There was a lot of experimentation around the country during the progressive era dating to the 1890s through the 1920s to establish not-for-profit school meal programs in cities and in rural areas across the country. Then another key moment that I really like to point to is actually, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there's a historian, Susan Levine, whose work I really like on this, and she refers to this as the right to lunch movement.
Basically, this was a time period where Black women, in particular, took on a huge leadership role in really pointing out the structural racism that existed in the national school lunch program. They came out with this report called Their Daily Bread that was pretty damning of the US Department of Agriculture and its school lunch program and really showed that the majority of students who were benefiting from the program were actually white middle-class students in the suburbs in particular. This really provided a lot of fuel for activists to actually take legislative action.
The federal government actually created a uniform national standard of eligibility for free and reduced meals at that point, which is what a lot of people might be familiar with today when they're asked to fill out those applications. I love those two examples because it shows what this combination of local action and national organizing, collective solidarity efforts can really achieve. I think that that's what we really need today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is a good school lunch, and how is it different than a bad one?
Jennifer Gaddis: When we're talking about school lunch, we have to not just only think about what an individual student might be eating or what a specific school might be serving, but we have to think about this within the context of us having, here in the United States, a big federal program. It's a really huge opportunity for us, I think as a country, to be thinking about how do we maximize the public value of these dollars. One is certainly providing healthy culturally relevant meals students actually want to eat once they're served to them.
The other piece is thinking about, what kind of food system do we want as a country. Do we want a food system in which we have tons and tons of workers who aren't making a livable wage, and who are struggling to feed themselves and their families? Do we want a food system that's environmentally destructive? I would say no, so, a lot of people in progressive spaces within school food reform are really starting to conceptualize this idea of a good school lunch as being a universal school lunch, meaning one that is free to all students, and free of stigma, and really integrated into the school day, but also one that's sourced according to really strong values.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Does that mean that a good school lunch is necessarily an expensive school lunch? I don't mean so much expensive for the young people, but I mean expensive for the school system to provide.
Jennifer Gaddis: I think it's a really tricky question because school lunch is not something that's separate from the rest of our economy. Right now we're seeing inflation driving up the costs of food for households. That same thing is impacting school food programs across the country and also labor costs are increasing. There are actually a lot of school food programs across the country that are short-staffed right now and having a lot of trouble recruiting and retaining enough staff. I think a lot of people when they think about what a good school launch would be, do have this idea of fresh food which requires scratch cooking.
Scratch cooking is something that can lead to higher quality jobs, more full-time work, and has a lot of benefits associated with the healthfulness of food. It's really hard when you can't actually pay your workers enough to attract them into the jobs. Do these meals have to be expensive? I would say that we need to invest in them to ensure that we have really high-quality meals for students, but there was a report that came out a few years ago, and one of the things that that report found was that the schools that were actually doing a really high amount of scratch cooking and providing more fresh meals to students, were actually spending the same amounts on food and labor as schools that did a very low amount of scratch cooking.
That suggests that we can do this in a really cost-effective way, but we need a big, massive investment from the federal government to build up the infrastructure for scratch cooking. Then I think from that point, it can be something that is really financially sustainable and workable for school districts.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It seems pretty clear that some kinds of institutions have figured out how important school nutrition is. They're investing in it a lot. I'm wondering if that is part of the gap that we see in American education.
Jennifer Gaddis: I think absolutely, and I think that it's something that not only makes a difference in terms of just what students are consuming, and how those nutrients might be impacting their ability to learn, but it also sends a really different signal to students about how they're valued by the institution. I have done quite a bit of fieldwork in school districts across the country, meaning just mostly spending time in school kitchens and cafeterias, and observing, and talking to people. The atmosphere in some schools is absolutely wonderful and provides this great space for students to connect with each other and to socialize and recharge for the next portion of their school day.
In other schools that I visited, it feels just incredibly demeaning in a sense, and just totally depersonalizing, where students might be lined up and yelled at through a megaphone, and told to just be quiet and not socialize, and not enjoy the meal itself.
Melissa Harris-Perry: With federal free school lunch waivers now ended, I asked Jessica what this means for schools and students, and what's the right recipe for future school lunch policy.
Jennifer Gaddis: We're, unfortunately, in this position where a lot of the gains that we saw in terms of reductions in hunger in all sorts of ways, in which three school meals over the last two years really were helpful for students and families, in a dream world that would have just continued but it didn't. There has been legislation that's been introduced at the federal level, but where I think we've seen the most traction is actually in the state level. The state of California, and Vermont, and Maine have already passed free school meals for all.
Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Nevada have done a temporary measure for this school year. Pennsylvania just announced free school breakfast for all students. There is gaining momentum in this area, and I would just encourage listeners to get involved in that effort if they're able to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jennifer Gaddis is associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of The Labor of Lunch. Jennifer, thanks so much for your time today.
Jennifer Gaddis: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, quick pause, but don't go anywhere. We're going to talk about just how radical it is to feed America's school children when we come back.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Huey P. Newton: They used to serve cookies, and I think Graham crackers and milk in the morning to children in primary school who had the money to pay for it. If you didn't have the money to pay for it, you had to put your head on the desk until the other kids finished eating. I always thought that was very bad, but at the Oakland Community School, everybody eats.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's the voice of Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. He's speaking there in a local television program from the 1970s. He's highlighting what some historians have described as the most radical and disruptive program of the entire Black Panther Party era. The free breakfast program for children. Here with me is Monifa Bandele, Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at MomsRising. Thanks for being here Monifa.
Monifa Bandele: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What exactly is radical about feeding children?
Monifa Bandele: Exactly. What is radical about feeding children is that it wasn't happening before. We did have a national school lunch program that started in the '40s, but there wasn't a school breakfast program. There was not a comprehensive school meals program. In communities like Huey Newton is from, in communities like I'm from, food insecurity was very high, particularly for Black families, Latinx families, Indigenous families. It was considered radical because it wasn't happening, and it was also considered radical because this was a program that was launched, run by the very same people in the communities that were facing food insecurities. It wasn't at that time, a government program in the '60s when this free breakfast program started. It got a lot of eyes, it got a lot of attention, and it was very effective.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, so it was not a program, it was not happening. In our most recent past, as in just a few months ago, it was, right? We had these waivers that came online in the context of the pandemic, that at least provided the possibility of free lunch, and also an extension of breakfast for so many young people. How worried are you about the end of these waivers?
Monifa Bandele: We're very concerned. The pandemic laid bare the inequalities, the insecurities, and the lack of infrastructure that already existed in the country. Let's remember that it just made it stark naked. You couldn't avoid it. We have to put things in place right now. We say we still need those things. We needed them before the pandemic, and we need them now even though we are still in the pandemic and prices are going through the roof. It's really scary when you think about the fact that just in August, inflation was 8.3% higher than the year before.
When you look at rent prices in August, it was up 12.3% from the year before. We're still in a pandemic. Costs are soaring for families, and at MomsRising where we hear from our members every day, they're really scared that they won't be able to put food on the table at night. This meal during the day at school was critical to their families' economic security.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you're talking about the families that you're hearing from, I just want to link back to the Panthers for a moment. There's these extraordinary memos written by Jay Edgar Hoover to a San Francisco surveillance office. It was published in a book called Black Against Empire. I just want to read this part of this one memo where Jay Edgar Hoover says that "One of our primary aims in counterintelligence, relative to the Black Panther Party, is to keep this group isolated from moderate Black and white communities who support it," but that the breakfast for children program, is where they're actively soliciting and receiving support," as Hoover writes here, "From uninformed whites and moderate Blacks."
I just want to zero in on that for a moment because what we're hearing right now is, "It's not like we've taken away free lunch. You can still go through this whole bureaucratic rigmarole. It's just that the universal free lunch, the notion that it's just simply available without having to qualify by being in circumstances of dire poverty." It does sound to me the notion of isolating from broader communities for whom free lunch still might be quite valuable, even if they're not living in desperate poverty.
Monifa Bandele: Yes, free lunch is valuable even if you're not living in poverty. It's valuable for you to understand the systems that we live in and the impact that white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism have on our communities. In many ways, what Hoover is saying is that he doesn't like the influence that is growing from this program. The education that communities are receiving from this program that really shines a light on the inequalities in the existing system. I happen to be a child of a former Black Panther Party member, and when I'm doing this work in public policy, in gender justice, in racial justice, I'm coming across people, my peers, elders, younger people who were influenced by that work.
Jay Edgar Hoover was right. The influence was national, the influence was global. It showed us something different. We didn't have to imagine it, we knew about it. Either we saw it in person or we heard the stories of our parents saying what they did when they were young. Now, we fight to make sure that all children have access to these things because we know it's possible. That was the danger that Jay Edgar Hoover saw, and he knew it would be an indictment of the inequalities that exist. It was powerful, in that, at its height was feeding 20,000 children, 30,000 children, depending on how you look at the beginning and the end of the program. That seems like a small number, but look at me, look at you talking about it. What they did was they taught us a very important lesson.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Monifa, I want to talk about not just the availability, but also the quality. What kinds of food is made available in different settings?
Monifa Bandele: It is really important. We were working very closely several years back with the former first lady, Michelle Obama, to put in place healthier meals in schools throughout the country in rural areas, urban areas. Wanted to make sure that students had access to the same level of high-quality meals, that there was no stigma because everywhere you went there was, we tried at least, that salad bar making sure there were a certain amount of fruits and vegetables on those plates, and to make sure that junk food didn't really make its way into our school meals.
It was really successful. Parents loved it. It reminded me of when I was younger and you may have remembered when there was this debate on whether or not ketchup was a vegetable in school meals, right?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Was a vegetable. Right.
Monifa Bandele: It was a way for us to step into that. We said, "No, a vegetable is a vegetable. We need fruits and vegetables, actual food on these plates."That that will help students not feel stigmatized to both eat the school meals and making sure that it was pushing us into really healthier lifestyle and diet. Now, with this going back, you're going to have some of those same issues that we saw, where some students aren't going to eat. If there are low nutrition, quality food in places like vending machines or nearby corner stores, that will become lunch for many of our students, so this is a health issue. It's an economic issue, and it's unnecessary. The past two years proves that we can provide free school meals. Why would we stop?
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you're talking about the things that the last year or two years proves to us, it also proves to us that we can slash childhood poverty by half, which is what happened with the implementation of this broader Earned Income Tax Credit, which has also now ended. I'm wondering how you see that connection with the ending of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and this ending of the waivers, what your families might be feeling?
Monifa Bandele: There's a tremendous amount of anxiety. This was unprecedented. For our families who have children now, they hadn't experienced this decrease in childhood poverty while they were parents. This is the greatest decline really in our lifetimes in child poverty rates. People were starting to become optimistic. We were still in the pandemic, inflation has been surging, but at least we have brought down this child poverty rate. There were some structures in place to make sure that people were not falling through the cracks.
Now it's almost as if someone has put both hands on that rug that you're standing on and is about to pull it from underneath you and your children's feet. It's a very scary moment right now. I cannot underscore enough the rising cost of rents. In places like New York where I live, and I'm sure many other people who tune in, we are seeing rents like never before. Average rents of $3,000 a month, depending on the neighborhoods, $4,000 a month. The threshold to have a free and reduced meal in my city for a family of four is $52,000 a year. Such a low threshold.
So many millions of children are left out, who could use a free meal, of these very low thresholds. The rug is being pulled out from under families while prices are surging. While we still haven't adjusted who qualifies, and of course, we really believe that the universal free meals are the way to go.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Monifa Bandele is Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at MomsRising. It's always a pleasure to talk with you, Monifa. Thank you for joining us.
Monifa Bandele: Thank you so much for having me.
Savannah: My name is Savannah. I'm a junior.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Savannah is a high school student in the Bronx, in New York City.
Savannah: Me, personally, and many of my friends, we don't eat the school lunch. I haven't seen no kids so far eat the lunch in this school. It's not appealing for us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In Bronx County where Savannah attends school, 87% of public school students were already receiving free or reduced lunches before the pandemic, but as you heard, it's not often food the students actually want to eat.
Savannah: Like say for the first day, we only had a cheese sandwich which was very cold, and I barely saw anybody eating.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's not as if the kids at Savannah's school are particularly picky.
Savannah: When we did the Teen Justice For Food, we gave away noodles. There was many kids on the line that actually ate the noodles and said that we should actually have a Noodles Day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Savannah's school partnered with the nonprofit Teens for Food Justice, and they build a hydroponic garden on campus. Savannah learned how to grow produce, and even advocate to officials for better school lunch options. It's something that she wishes more students could do.
Savannah: If we have a class in the after school, it could show us how these foods, lettuce, and stuff, are actually good for us, and how it teaches you how to be healthy in life. When you see what you're eating on a daily basis you're going to stop because these healthy foods are actually good.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Keep going and keep growing, Savannah. We love to see what you're doing. We also asked you what you remembered about your school lunches. Sally from Texas summed it up in one word.
Melissa Harris-Perry: [chuckles] There were some fun memories as well.
Laurie: Hi, this is Laurie, and I'm calling from Loveland, Colorado. School lunch in the '60s and '70s was a world away from today's lunches. The lunch ladies in my little town made homemade buttery yeasty dinner rolls to die for. Homemade chicken ala King beef stew, American Chop Suey, and desserts, peanut butter bars, chocolate pudding, jello, snickerdoodle bread.
Gail Turner: Hi, this is Gail Turner from Richmond, Virginia. I remember coming back to public school in the late 1960s, having gone to a school that did not have a cafeteria, and all of a sudden there were hot meals. Meatloaf, gravy, mashed potatoes, and most importantly, fresh baked rolls every day. It set the tenor for the rest of my life. I'm looking for a hot yeast roll to this day.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As a kid from the Virginia public schools in the 1970s, I can attest that we were living large in the lunchroom. Some of you couldn't help but compare your school meals with what you see your children eating today.
Steve: I'm Steve from Mobile, Alabama. The food that we had at lunch wasn't top-tier, but it was adequate. I'm sitting here looking at the menu of what they're trying to feed my kids for the next month, and it's just a hot dog and some potato wedges, a hamburger, and fries. All of the potential toppings of the burger, which I know my kid isn't going to eat, are listed as extra items.
Female Speaker: I remember square cheese pizzas and pizza burgers, which were half a hamburger bun with a slice of American cheese and a little dollop of tomato sauce and onion. It was the best and then it was the worst. Now, my son has so many more healthy options, and yet he doesn't even want to eat lunch at school. Maybe we should just go back to pizza burgers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, I know kids aren't exactly known for their refined palates, but as we heard from our high school friend, Savannah, empowering students to have more of a say in their school lunches isn't just about giving them well-rounded meals, but also a well-rounded education.
Savannah: It does help you with life and teaches you how to help others have a good eating habit, and blood system, and life.
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