Kids may not like the peas and carrots served up by the nation’s school lunch program, but many of the country’s leading food companies enjoy the billions of dollars in sales that bring those vegetables to their plates. Behind the overcooked vegetables and steam-table pizza that some 29 million American children confront each school day is an industry that rivals defense contractors and media giants in its ability to bring home the federal bacon—er, the seasoned lettuce cup.
School lunch. A prosaic, even nostalgic event, multiplied hundreds of millions of times—187 billion lunches served—becomes, voila! a $6.6 billion annual all-you-can-eat lunch line, one of the most popular and sturdy of all federal social programs (see Figure 1). Except for food stamps ($27 billion), it is the most expensive of all federal food programs. Pass the gravy!
But there’s more. Add to that the $1.8 billion for school breakfasts and the nearly $1 billion school commodities program (a relic of the 1930s, when the Department of Agriculture started buying food and giving it to the schools directly) and you realize that, at $9.5 billion, providing food to school children is a major federal commitment.
Consistent with the intent of the original school-lunch program, created by Congress in 1946 to provide “nutritious agricultural commodities” to children, the major purpose of today’s school-lunch program is to ensure that children, especially those from poor and low-income families, have nutritious food at school. The school-breakfast program started as a pilot in 1966 and was made permanent in 1975. How these programs, and the money that travels with them, have grown steadily over the years is a story that illustrates many of the underlying mechanisms of social policy creation in the nation’s capital. But can this aging machinery adapt to the demands of a fast-food culture? We created school lunch to feed the hungry. Can we now ask it to fight obesity?