Wary of major shifts in school lunch focus

by Morton Sosland
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Among many items on the national legislative agenda of importance to food manufacturing, reauthorization of the National School Lunch Program may not win as much attention as it deserves. In contrast to past reauthorizations, when spending limits were the main matter, this time it is likely that efforts will center on changing the quality and quantity of food made available. Considering that the program affects foods served to almost all school age children, its potential impact on eating habits of a huge swath of the consuming public, now and into the future, is striking. To be specific, school lunch aid is available in 99% of U.S. public schools and 83% of private and public schools combined. In addition, the School Breakfast Program is offered in 85% of public schools.

Saying that no other federal program affects food consumption more than school lunch and school breakfast is no exaggeration. Reauthorization comes at a time when attitudes toward school lunches have been radically changed by rising concern with what children are eating and how this has meant inadequate nutrition and obesity worries. In contrast to the program’s start in the 1940s when the guiding principle was a minimum level of calories for each student, current concerns would change that minimum by adding a maximum. Further, the Institute of Medicine has recommended to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which manages the program, that it be revised to focus on increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and whole-grain-rich foods and reducing saturated fat and sodium.

Hardly anything underscores the shift under way in federal food policies than the way one of the original school lunch goals is being questioned. The program got its start in 1946 with the passage of the National School Lunch Act. Early support came from agricultural advocates who promoted the program as a wise way of using the rising stocks of grain and other commodities acquired by the Commodity Credit Corp. in supporting farm prices. That backing led to U.S.D.A. management. Significantly, that support is still essential, since it will be the congressional committees on agriculture that will take up reauthorization.

The concept of “additionality” has figured prominently from the program’s start. This concept measures the amount by which a dollar spent on food by the government results in how much additional food consumption. The measure is in terms of dollars and cents, even though early sponsors spoke of bushels of wheat, pounds of butter and wheels of cheese. Lawmakers often pointed to the program’s nutritional benefits for children and financial aid for school districts as secondary to the help in disposing of surpluses. If there also was a gain in spending on food outside of schools, so much the better.

All of that “additionality” has taken on a new complexion due to concerns about obesity and children eating too much of the wrong food. Several studies hint that any boosting of consumption on account of school lunch should now be interpreted as a policy failure when measured against what should be nutritional goals. Overconsumption of calories is now seen as a, if not the, primary challenge to the health of children. Rather than showing how much consumption is bolstered, the program now gauges success by how much school meal nutrition has improved.

In abandoning any role for the school lunch program in building markets, leaders in this shift are risking loss of farm lobby support. Since this backing has been important to past legislation, it seems likely that lobbyists not usually associated with school lunch programs will have to become involved. Even as food manufacturers are very aware of the program and its impact on retail volume, the fundamental concern has been with the way school lunches influence future eating habits. At stake in the current effort not just to reauthorize, but also to rewrite, is a great force in the food marketplace of the next several decades.

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