Back Forty: The politics of school-lunch reform

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Third-grade students serve lunch at Umejima Elementary School in Tokyo, Jan. 16, 2013. Photo by Ko Sasaki for The Washington Post.

By Jane Black

The school food programs of Japan and the United States share surprisingly similar histories. Both were launched informally in the late 19th century to serve hungry children and grew with the spread of universal education. Both expanded in the aftermath of World War II, when feeding students was considered a matter of national interest. In the 1980s, both programs suffered funding cuts and at least partially outsourced meal preparation to the private sector.

And yet, how different that shared history looks today on the tray. On any given day, Japanese students might eat rice with black soybeans, grown by the class, and mackerel topped with locally grown leeks. Students help prepare the food and serve it, and parents applaud the meals’ convenience, nutrition, and affordability. Many American students, meanwhile, eat pizza for breakfast and “walking tacos” — a bag of Fritos topped with ground meat and shredded cheese — for lunch. For good reason, the U.S. school lunch program is often a punchline.

Why the end products are so vastly different, given the similar histories, is a question that underpins the essays in a new book, Transforming School Food Politics Around the World. The collection sets out to show how parents, nutritionists, farmers, mothers  — the editors call them “policy protagonists” — engage in school food politics. One goal of the book is to share successes and highlight pitfalls for those who want to transform school food politics themselves. 

It’s a laudable undertaking, given the importance of childhood nutrition and, in the U.S. especially, the longstanding failure to separate partisan political debates from what the science — and common sense — tells us we should be feeding our kids to ensure a healthy diet. 

Around the world, school-lunch advocates have in recent years achieved victories for their varied causes, which range from supporting small farmers who want to supply school cafeterias (Brazil) to integrating sustainable food education into school curriculums (Finland). But the tactics that succeed in one place may not easily transfer to the U.S. — or anywhere else. Taken together, the book’s essays underline that school lunch programs, and the prospect of improving them, are deeply dependent on local cultural values.  

Consider the Japanese government’s embrace of neoliberal policies in the 1990s. The decision to reduce agricultural tariffs to encourage imports spurred a grassroots movement to protect Japan’s agricultural identity focused on chisan chisho, or “local production, local consumption.”

The movement prodded the agricultural ministry, in 2002, to begin offering funds to schools to purchase from local farmers. Three years later, a national “Basic Law on Food Education,” inspired by the writings of Sagen Ishizuka, a 19th century proponent of the macrobiotic diet, made food education the foundation of intellectual, moral, and physical education. The law’s seven principles encourage schools to teach children about nutrition, of course, but also about the people who produce, transport, and prepare food. It also mandates lessons that instill an appreciation of traditional Japanese food culture.

The authors illustrate these values in action in a case study from Joetsu, a city about 200 miles northwest of Tokyo. There, a fifth-grade curriculum included lessons on meat production. Students watched a film about how cattle and pigs “come to the table”; they met an employee from a wholesale meat processing plant; they cut, grilled, and compared various cuts of meat. After learning how pigs are killed, one student declared, “From now on I will try to eat mindfully and not have any leftovers.”

A course like that would make Alice Waters, the celebrity chef, founder of The Edible Schoolyard Project — and a food reformer not exactly known for her pragmatism — swoon. But it’s hard to imagine that such a program could succeed in America. The realities of slaughter might be “triggering” for some kids. Educating children on the difference between grass-fed versus grain-fed cattle would no doubt set off alarm bells at industry groups, like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which has successfully lobbied various states to ban plant-based alternatives from calling their products “meat.” And in the U.S., there is no universally respected 19th (or 20th or 21st) century food guru.

In short: Japan’s  school lunch is shaped by a broad cultural belief — among parents and policymakers — that food matters: to health, to the environment, and to the country’s sovereignty. The defining values of America’s food culture are, in contrast, price and convenience.

Another essay traces the success of political activists in India in implementing a school meal program, dubbed the midday meal scheme. The program was launched in 1995, but many Indian states failed — for years — to deliver to students the mandated daily ration of 100 grams of cooked grains. 

 The Indian Constitution enshrines several fundamental rights — to life, education, and equality — and these are a source of pride to the more than 1 billion people who live in the world’s largest democracy. And so grassroots activists called out the government’s failure as a denial of another civil right: a “right to food.” They organized demonstrations in schools, parks, and in front of tax collectors’ offices, and ultimately took their case to the Indian Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor. Today, India has the largest school-lunch program in the world, serving more than 91 million children. In 2013, the right to food was recognized in the Indian National Food Security Act.

It’s an inspiring story. India’s campaign worked because it tapped into a profound national belief, shaped by nearly a century of British colonial rule, that citizens’ rights are sacred. But while Americans talk a lot about their rights and freedoms, would they show up to rally for the “right to food”? Given that one in six households with children experience food insecurity, and no one is in the streets to protest, I think the answer is clear. 

Transforming School Food Politics does feature case studies from the U.S. But the success stories come from two states that value small farms and progressive leadership: California and Vermont. The Golden State chapter charts the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy’s 25-year effort to build political coalitions and fund pilot programs to “prove” that high-quality school food improves health and academic outcomes. But it is not incidental that the first state to make school meals free to all students, regardless of family income, is California, one that takes pride in setting standards for the nation. 

In Vermont, which now also offers universally free meals in schools, advocates built coalitions and wisely made allies of competitors with whom they used to fight for funding scraps. But the state also has a long history of small dairies, is full of cars sporting “No Farms, No Food” bumper stickers, and, not coincidentally, is home to Bernie Sanders.

California and Vermont may serve as models for some U.S. states. (Indeed, eight states — seven blue and one purple, Michigan — have now enacted universal school meals.) But in many other states, the roadmap might very well lead to a dead end. Change happens when policy demands align with cultural values — it’s no accident that “walking tacos” are many kids’ favorite lunch fare. 

To fix school lunch here at home, the U.S. cannot just copy Japan — or India or Brazil or Finland. We need our own campaigns that tap into what matters to American families. And that is vastly different from place to place. Local food systems may matter in blue states. But in red ones, a successful campaign might emphasize job creation or saving  parents’ valuable time. School lunch politics are politics like any other, and all politics are local.