Jennifer Gaddis and Amy K. Coplen
Government-sponsored school lunch programs use public funds to support food and agriculture systems with particular ecological and care outcomes. As a population-level intervention, school lunch programs operate in a contested political arena shaped by government agencies, civil society activists, and powerful agri-food companies. A growing body of scholarship and activism has increasingly sought to expose the myriad externalities of nutritionism and the broader corporate food regime that has co-opted the public value of school lunch programs in multiple country contexts, including the United States, where the dominant “heat-and-serve” model of reheating highly processed factory-made foods negatively impacts public health, social equity, and the environment. How can public school lunch programs be reorganized in ways that maximize their true public value? Jennifer Gaddis and Amy K. Coplen explore these questions within the context of the US National School Lunch Program (NSLP) using feminist economist Marilyn Power’s social provisioning methodology.
The organization of school lunch programs dictates the quality of care that children receive. The NSLP was established in 1946 after decades of civil society activism and local experimentation and has since evolved into a 13 billion dollar federal program. In its current incarnation, the NSLP reinforces the corporate agri-food industry’s influence over federal nutrition standards, reproduces health disparities along lines of race and class, and supports unsustainable food systems. At present, 30 million children participate in the economically stratified NSLP, eating free, reduced-price, or full-price lunch depending on family income. Another 20 million children, primarily from more affluent families, opt-out of the program, refusing this public subsidy on grounds of food quality and/or the stigma associated with consuming school lunch.
The NSLP operates in a political climate of austerity in which care is assigned little economic value. To keep financially afloat, school foodservice directors look to the “heat-and-serve” economy, which relies on a complex mixture of synthetic additives, plastic packaging, energy-intensive transportation, and degraded labor. The labor of school lunch is not merely a transactional service, but rather a meaningful relationship between givers and receivers of care. Recognizing the value of this care labor is critical for cultivating children’s taste for healthy, sustainable foods through school lunch programs. As long as school cafeteria workers are treated as a cost to minimize and children are tracked into unequal food systems based on race and class, the caring potential of school lunch will remain elusive.
School lunch can be restructured as an intergenerational and inherently ecological caring activity to promote the development of equitable, healthy, just, and sustainable food systems. Government agencies and civil society actors can reorganize public school lunch programs to maximize their caring potential. To this aim, Gaddis and Coplen argue for expanding the NSLP to provide universally free school lunches to all children – a proposal that is both morally sound and more likely to appeal to taxpayers because of the universal benefit. Moreover, they suggest that school kitchens and cafeterias could play a greater role in feeding other vulnerable populations (that is, young children, the elderly, and people with disabilities), an approach that would reduce the burden of gendered and unpaid caring responsibilities on women.
Gaddis and Coplen also discuss emergent strategies for redirecting school lunch procurement toward more ethical and ecologically sound supply chains. Local flexibility and participatory democracy coupled with strong national procurement standards offer a promising template for future reform. Breaking from the “heat-and-serve” economy and instead investing in culinary capacity (the time, skills, and equipment necessary to cook meals from scratch) offers multiple benefits: schools can prepare culturally appropriate meals, support agro-biodiversity and resilience in the food system, and create higher quality jobs in the care sector. In these ways, publicly funded school lunch programs can be reorganized to promote public health, social equity, and ecological sustainability in the US and other country contexts.