Farmers, Fruits, and First Graders: A brief look at the National School Lunch Program

June 25, 2015

Written By: Christina Muniz, Farm to School/USDA Fellow

When I was in grade school I never thought about where the food I ate in the cafeteria came from. Most of the students at the public schools I attended were on free or reduced lunch. We all stood in line at midday and ate whatever the women behind the sneeze guard plexiglass put on our trays. I never questioned the food or thought about how far it traveled. It was just lunch, no big deal. Now, however, the contents of the school child’s lunch tray is the only thing I think about.

As a Climate Fellow for the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire, I am trying to untangle the complicated system that farmers and food producers must navigate to become eligible to sell food to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The hope is that if we can get more local producers approved, then more local food will end up in local public schools.

In the late 1930s, a program, today known as the National School Lunch Program (NLSP), was implemented to accomplish two goals, support American farmers and feed the nation’s youth. A nation ravaged by the Great Depression and under the threat of another World War desperately needed these two things to happen. The Great Depression had created a surplus of crops and plummeted prices to a point that farmers were unable to make a living and families could not afford to buy lunch for their school children. The USDA, the agency in charge of implementing the NSLP and other feeding programs like it, attempted to fix these problems by buying food from farmers and food producers and distributing it to schools across the country.

Fast forward to 2015, and the fact that public schools serve lunch to their students for drastically low prices is taken for granted. Every parent knows if they send their kids to school with a little bit of money (or none if they are eligible for free lunches) their child will be fed lunch. That is great, but people don’t really think about where the food comes from, or the cumbersome system that is set up to ensure the quality and safety of that food.

There are three different departments within two different agencies buying foods which end up in schools. Specific rules ensure all the food is grown and produced in the United States. Contrary to popular belief about the quality of school food, there is a complicated network of specifications and regulations that must be met to ensure the food is safe and of high quality.

The problem, at least from my perspective, is the food is often canned, dried, or frozen. Public schools cannot afford to maintain the necessary kitchen to utilize fresh ingredients. They cannot afford to pay full time workers with the skills to make healthy meals from fresh, local foods, much less the professional appliances needed for a kitchen that might serve hundreds or even thousands of students a day. This means they rely on canned and ready to heat food that their part-time workers and minimal kitchen infrastructure can handle.

This is a sad reality when you live in a state like New Hampshire and a region like New England. With small scale agriculture on the rise, there is a resurgence of local farmers and food producers that need places to sell their products, but getting this local food into local schools proves a LOT easier said than done.

This is where I come in. I maintain the hope that this summer I will be able to create a user friendly guide that will help local farmers and food producers connect with the government agencies that will buy their food and distribute it to local schools. If more local producers are approved to sell to the government, then more local food has the chance of ending up on a child’s lunch tray.

My fear, however, is that, even though the majority of businesses approved to sell to the government are in fact small businesses, and the process to sign up has very minimal costs, the system is still far too cumbersome. There are miles of red tape and mountains of regulations that must be navigated, a daunting task for a small farmer or food producer.

The federal government spends around two billion dollars buying food for feeding programs, including the NSLP, every year, and yet schools are struggling to keep their cafeterias open and children are eating canned vegetables when those same vegetables are growing fresh a stone’s throw away. Local farmers and producers in New England are chomping at the bit to find new customers to buy their foods. The USDA is working tirelessly to make changes that will allow for more local and fresh food to enter the system, but the system wasn’t set up to work on a local level to begin with. The system was set up to buy mass quantities of surplus food stuffs and distribute them across the entire nation to fix immediate problems facing the country over 70 years ago.

I generally believe that it is important for people in the environmental and local food movements to work within the systems that are already in place. When you ask people to change too much too fast they shut down and refuse to make any changes at all. Gradual steps are a better way to accomplish long term goals. The project I am working on has the potential to help the national food system that supports American farmers and food producers and feeds our school children. It has the potential to help a few more local foods get into a few more local schools. But, as I navigate more of this system I continue to hear my grandmother’s voice resonating in my head with a well-known colloquialism, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I can’t help but wonder, “What is the definition of ‘broke?’”


Follow Christina on twitter @foodandaglaw
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