The Atlantic • June 10, 2010
How did it get so hard to feed kids healthy food?
This inquiry undergirds most recent efforts to examine what we feed our kids in school, yet from Two Angry Moms to Jamie Oliver’s School Food Revolution, the focus has tended to be on documenting what is wrong with school lunch: the chicken nuggets, the greasy crackerbread pizza, the nacho cheeze products, and the mozzarella sticks. But it’s the former question that matters most if school lunch is going to change—and that is precisely where Lunch Line, Uji Films’s ambitious new documentary that premiered in mid-May, makes its mark.
The film begins by introducing us, via a montage with quietly hip background music (indie rockers Mates of State just agreed to provide additional scoring for the film), to a chefs-in-training team of teenagers in the Cooking Up Change program at Chicago’s Tilden Career Academy. The group has just won a school meal contest—fitting, since just under 99 percent of Tilden students qualify for free or reduced lunch—along with a trip to Washington, D.C., where they’ll make their winning menu of chicken jambalaya, cornbread, and cucumber salad at a school food briefing.
Mixing footage of the elated students with archival footage of school cafeterias, the sequence (somewhat misleadingly) suggests that we’re going to meet and follow the students. We do meet and get charmed by them, and they make a compelling case for the benefits of teaching our youths to cook; the film also profiles efforts in one Chicago school to serve better food through the Organic School Project. But the film’s core lies in what comes next: the political and social history that has made the 64-year-old school lunch program into what it is today.
Seven decades of political history is the kind of thing discreet napping was made for, but the filmmakers, Michael Graziano and Ernie Park, hit pay dirt by using striking illustrations and on-screen text to depict, in the style of the Twilight/New Moon storyline, the emergence of an unlikely alliance between anti-hunger legislators (depicted as werewolves) and lawmakers from Southern agricultural states (vampires). It borders on silly, but forgivably so; it’s easily one of the most engaging on-screen history lessons I’ve ever seen.
And, luckily, the lesson is a substantive one, drawing mostly on two behemoths of school food politics: professors Susan Levine and Janet Poppendieck. Levine provides the analytical backbone of the film, while Poppendieck contributes a concise political history of the America’s school lunch program—no mean feat given that school lunch began in 1946 and has endured attacks nearly every decade since. Along with additional context from Dan Glickman, Bill Clinton’s secretary of agriculture, they make two critical points that often get overlooked: school lunch is both an anti-hunger program and one of our nation’s most successful social programs, feeding 31 million children every day.
These points are essentially hidden in plain sight, and Lunch Line deftly reveals their implications. School lunch, in fact, is one of the few entitlement programs left in America. (Before the program was created, congressional debate included representatives warning that “Socialism is not a game to play at with the youngest of our citizens.”) It is something of a political anomaly that school lunch has managed to weather McCarthyism, Reaganism, and Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. That’s not because of the good hearts of American lawmakers, but because of the program’s political strength, which lies—as the film shows—in one of the things that current critics of school lunch often loudly lament: its status as a program of the USDA.
Positioning the program under the USDA certainly makes sense in a general way: it formally ties school meals to whatever our farmers produce. This would be fine for our children’s meals if America’s agricultural policy leaned towards fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and the like. But as has been painstakingly documented by several journalists—Paul Roberts’s The End of Food being arguably the most comprehensive analysis—our agricultural policy has institutionalized the overproduction of corn and soy, leading to a boundless supply of cheap food that can feed but not necessarily sustain us. The cumulative lesson of Lunch Line, though not fully articulated, is this: changing the food that lands easily on schoolchildren’s plates—at least, doing so without stripping school lunch of the political benefits afforded by its home at USDA—requires changing ag policy.
And, as Jamie Oliver has made clear, it also requires changing what happens in school kitchens, and for that point the film reverts to the now-familiar storyline of an effort to do just that. Throughout the film, we see interviews and vignettes from the Organic School Project, a short-lived nonprofit effort in Chicago to mix school gardening, classroom projects, and fresh food in the cafeteria that closed down when it could no longer raise the $160,000 needed for every three months of food. This would come off as a bit of a tangent except for the appearance of Bill Bloomer, a food services contractor with Chicago’s public schools. “Here you go: come up with more of that,” he says, pulling a dollar bill out of his pocket. “If you want to go back to scratch cooking, that’s great. I can’t do it for what’s allocated to school districts across America.”
Lunch Line didn’t start out to be a piece of advocacy. When it premiered in May at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Detroit, Graziano and Park explained that they’d actually started out simply documenting the work of the Organic School Project. But as they neared completion on that effort, says Graziano, “We realized, this isn’t the right film.” And then, says Park, the question became, “Why is it so hard to do something so obviously right?”
Answering that is an ambitious task, and Lunch Line doesn’t always navigate the trickiest turns with success; there are lines of narrative that could be better-explained, snippets of background information that would clarify a lot. But Lunch Line is an excellent primer on how our school lunch came to be what it is—and thus should be required viewing for anyone seeking to change it.