Much popular discussion of children’s eating habits is filled with stereotypical claims, tired assumptions and victim blaming. For her pioneering book, Fast Food Kids, Amy Best engaged in ethnography, hanging out with youth in high school cafeterias and after school, at McDonald’s and other fast food outlets. Best provides an original account of youth food cultures that takes seriously the power of the corporate food system, as well as enduring inequalities of class, race and gender. The third in her trilogy on youth consumer culture, Fast Food Kids is a major contribution. In this month’s blog, Best discusses school lunch programs. While Trump Cabinet member Sonny Perdue claims his aim is to “Make School Lunch Great Again,” Best provides a more interesting account of what’s going on in the nation’s cafeterias….As always, your thoughts about this month’s blog post are welcome.
– Juliet Schor
School Lunch Politics
By Amy Best
This past spring, newly appointed Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary, Sonny Perdue issued a Proclamation loosening the National School Lunch and School Breakfast program requirements and granting exemptions to schools struggling to provide whole grains that are “acceptable to students”–all under the call of “Making School Meals Great Again”. The Proclamation was intended to grant greater local control of nutritional guidelines for sodium, milk and whole grains, citing Southern children’s refusal to eat whole grain grits. Unlike the single grain variety which is uniformly white, whole grain grits are dotted with little black specks, making them less appealing to kids. “Schools need flexibility” to serve “nutritious and appealing meals” that “encourage participation”, the Proclamation asserts.
There is a lot to make of the example of grits. They capture the tension between distinct cultural foodways and shifting attitudes toward dietary health. Because grits are a point of Southern pride, it is difficult to mount a challenge against them. But I am more interested in understanding the claim about food’s appeal. What’s involved in making food appealing to kids?
This is a question I asked in Fast Food Kids: French Fries, Lunch Lines and Social Ties after observing in school lunchrooms and fast-food hot spots like McDonald’s and Chipotle. I’ve moved in and out of elementary and high schools for years, watching kids as they harvest food, prepare it, remark on it, and eat it. I’ve inspected cafeteria trash cans to determine what gets thrown out and what doesn’t. I’ve talked with food directors, other school administrators, teachers, and parents. Making food appealing is hardly a straightforward proposition.
Food’s appeal to young people is part of a larger calculus of concerns for food directors and the school districts that employ them: labor, budget, constraints of market offerings, the USDA’s surplus food commodities program, federal nutritional guidelines, and the curricular aims of nutritional education. Budget shortfalls often leave school food directors up against a wall, beholden to competitive foods, like Pop-tarts and Doritos, to draw students in, even though competitive foods undermine the sustainability of the National School Lunch program. Many food directors feel hostage to food industries and what is experienced as a constant fleecing of meager lunchroom budgets and deception on price and portions. One food director gave the example of a vendor who said he could sell soup for $.06 per serving only to later find out the serving size was 2oz. “That’s a gulp, not a serving,” he chided.
That school lunch often is unappealing is bound up with a deep cultural ambivalence about the public provisioning of food for children, an activity long associated with the private realm of home and motherly care. Arguably, characterizations of school lunch as “gross” or “nasty”, a common childhood refrain, are expressions of this ambivalence.
Our ideas about school food’s appeal are often difficult to disentangle from our assumptions about childhood. The prevailing assumption is to make food appealing to kids requires a forfeit of health; kids will refuse healthy offerings, generating enormous plate waste. This is a questionable claim. While there certainly are kids content to eat pizza day in, day out, they do not represent the diversity of viewpoints held by young people about food. UC Berkeley’s Center for Weight & Health found that nearly 70% of high school students surveyed thought having fresh fruit on the menu more important than chips, candy or soda. These students characterized their school food environments as unhealthy.[i]
Commercial food companies are major players in shaping the public provisioning of food in school. Food and beverage industry spends millions to advance corporate interests in school, too often at the expense of sound nutritional health for children. But it’s not simply that commercial food companies force their way in. For students and food directors commercial food is THE yard stick for evaluation of school food. To stay financially afloat, food directors follow market trends and serve food with market resonance to gain greater student participation. Chinese chicken, vegetables and rice, for example, was served in a Chinese take-out box at one school I studied. At another high school where 60% of the students were free and reduced lunch eligible, the cafeteria was designed to look like a shopping mall food court; food stations were modeled after commercial equivalents, but the food served was lower in salt, sugar and fat. (It’s worth mentioning the program had high participation rates and little plate waste.)
School food was supposed to at one point approximate home-cooked meals, but the expectation today is school food should taste and look like retail foods. “It’s like the Chick-Fil-A burger. It’s like a knock off,” one high schooler offered, in describing the hamburger at her school. “Friday they would have this like fake Chipotle,” offered another. That young people assess school food in relation to retail fast food is hardly surprising given the percentage of calories eaten away from home has increased substantially for children across age groups over the last quarter century, transforming the categories we use to think about and evaluate food.[ii]
School food holds little if any sacred value (unlike home-cooked food); nor does it contain the allure of commercial foods. Unlike in the commercial realm where options (Panera, Chipotle, Taco Bell, Baja Fresh) appear limitless, depending entirely on what someone’s in the mood for, in school by comparison, even in schools that boast 20 meal offerings daily, the range of options narrows significantly. For lots of students, the biggest food complaint is boredom. Much of this is bundled up with how we think about public institutions and the goods and services offered by them, including the food.
The project of feeding children is an important public obligation. Students who participate in the NSLP are more likely to consume fruits and vegetables than those who don’t participate, suggesting that the perception of school lunch as a failing public project reflects our inclinations to assume public institutions have failed us rather than the other way around.
[i] Gosliner, W., K. Madsen , G. Woodward-Lopez , P.Crawford. ( 2011).”Would Students Prefer to Eat Healthier Foods at School?” Journal of School Health. 81:3 (146-51)
[ii] The U.S. Department of Labor reports that nearly 40% of food dollars for American households are spent on food eaten away from home and that nearly 60% of Americans will eat a meal or snack away from home on any given day. Half of American’s daily calories are derived from food eaten outside home. http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/1996/eatout1196.htm. See Poti J. and B. Popkin (2011). “Trends in Energy Intake among U.S. Children by Eating Location and Food Source, 1977-2006.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111:8 (1156-1164).
Amy L. Best is Professor and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at George Mason University. Her research focuses on youth, schooling and consumption, children’s wellbeing and social inequalities. She is author of Fast Food Kids: Youth and the Changing Food Landscape of School and Home (NYU Press, 2017); Prom Night Youth, Schools and Popular Culture (2000, Routledge), which was selected for the 2002 American Educational Studies Association Critics’ Choice Award; and Fast Cars: Cool Rides: The Accelerating World of Youth and Their Cars (NYU Press, 2006).