An Historical Perspective on the “Cafeteria Wars”

school_lunch_pizza_day.jpgWho would have thought that a partitioned tray, its levees of plastic separating various lunch “delicacies,” held in the hands of a hungry grade-school child who just wants to eat lunch, could turn into such a full-blown controversy?

Well, it has.

Patti Montague, CEO of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), gave an impassioned (and perhaps somewhat defensive) response to Nicholas Confessore’s recent New York Times Magazine article entitled “How School Lunch Became the Latest Political Battleground,” in which Confessore accused the SNA of buddying up to large food producers at the cost of the health and wellbeing of our nation’s children. Montague’s attempt does not come as a surprise given the way Confessore outed the SNA for attempting to block the latest version of the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA). As Confessore explains, the SNA didn’t always have this reputation and it was only in the last five years that it changed its political bent.

This is not breaking news about SNA; they’ve had plenty of recent press. But when the NY Times weighs in, the forks start to fly.

Let’s go back to the act itself. Initially HHFKA achieved broad congressional support, but when its policies were actually enacted, Confessore explains: the government began turning the broad guidelines into specific rules — specific rules with specific consequences for specific players — life became more difficult. What began as a war on obesity turned into war among onetime allies. Republicans now attack the new rules as a nanny-state intrusion by the finger-wagging first lady. Food companies, arguing that the new standards are too severe, have spent millions of dollars lobbying to slow or change them. Some students have voted with their forks, refusing to eat meals they say taste terrible.”

Soon the HHFKA’s enactment evolved into a battleground over school lunch standards like pizza ($450-millions-worth is served each year in schools). Alliances shifted between a number of high ranking government officials and “lunch ladies” (cafeteria workers). Just when those advocating for fresher healthier lunches thought they had won, the steam tables turned. Suddenly pizza, mocked not long ago for being labeled a “vegetable” because it has a mere tablespoon or so of tomato paste on a slice, was back. In perplexing fashion, even the lunch ladies were now favoring the giant food companies despite the fact that big (and usually frozen) food corp products have turned the art of actual cooking in a school cafeteria into nothing more than turning a dial on a microwave or convection oven.

It’s a complicated mess that you might expect in an episode of House of Cards, but the unfortunate reality is that big food companies have a large stake, and an increasingly broad control of, school nutrition standards. They’re serious about flexing their muscle to protect their $450,000 pizza and potato chips that sit at the end of the lunch line beyond Michelle Obama’s vegetables and whole grains.

We can read Confessore’s account and come away with a huge serving of cynicism for money, politics and the health of our nation, but as Wellness Warriors, we can also use this kind of information to inform our decisions and ignite our passions for making positive change in this world. The “cafeteria war” is far from being over!

PHOTO: Creative Commons


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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