Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lunch Law Lards Commodity Food Producers, Does Little to Fight Obesity

Image by fsgm
On Monday, President Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, providing an additional $4.5 billion to the school lunch program over the next ten years. Obama praised the bill as a rare example of bipartisan cooperation, which should have alerted everyone that it was really just a big giveaway to corporate America.

The bill’s supporters believe that it will provide kids with more access to whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. It allows the USDA to set nutritional standards for all food, whether in cafeterias or vending machines, paving the way for the ultimate elimination of candy and other junk food at schools. It will also expand free school meals to an additional 115,000 low income students.

Much Ado About Nothing
While these are all good things, they are unlikely to happen. The legislation only provides a paltry six cent increase for each meal served, just enough to spread a few whole grains decoratively around students’ plates. Schools will be allowed to raise prices for students who can afford it, but there is no guarantee that students will be willing to pay more for a plate of “healthy” food, especially if it is still mass produced and heavily processed swill. Even if the more privileged students do pay more, schools still won’t be able to afford to hire sufficient cooks to prepare fresh meals on site, and will continue to rely on a few underpaid servers to hand out prefabricated meals produced by corporate giants like Sodexo and Marriott.

The pathetic six cents per meal subsidy will only be provided to schools that implement the new stricter nutrition guidelines. Considering that schools were already losing money on federally subsidized school lunches, even when resorting to prefabricated corporate factory foods, how will an additional six cents allow them to provide fresh fruits and vegetables? It’s unlikely that many schools will take advantage of the new program without making cuts elsewhere.

In my school district, the food is so horrendous that few students were buying it. However, our district had negotiated a deal with Marriott guaranteeing them a profit, which they weren’t making, obligating the school district to pay the difference. In an attempt to save themselves money, the district required schools to implement a brunch period, forcing us to change our bell schedules and cut several minutes of instructional time from each class, in hopes that kids would purchase more.

Robbing Peter to Pay for Paul?
Half the funding for the lunch bill is set to come from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which will provide kids a few cents more per meal at school, while reducing the amount of food stamps their parents would get to feed them at home. President Obama promised to replace the money taken from SNAP from some yet unspecified source. However, in this time of budget slashing and Republican rancor, he is unlikely to make good on this promise. If he fails to secure the funding, school may become the only place where poor kids get to eat. At home they can watch their parents starve.

Opening the Larder to Corporate Plunder
Both the First Lady’s organization, Let’s Move, and the new federal lunch law, were heavily backed by the largest food processing and factory farming groups in the country who hoped to win some of the $4.5 billion of taxpayer dollars allocated in the new legislation. Simply signing on as a supporter is great PR, as it allows these companies look like cheerleaders for children’s health while they continue to push their heavily salted, larded and sugared junk. The tactic is known as “cause marketing.” Joan Chow, chief marketing officer of ConAgra, a big supporter (and potential beneficiary) of the bill, said “We’ve found that consumers feel better about brands that they believe in.”

The biggest benefit to food corporations, however, is that the USDA has 18 months to determine the final nutrition standards, giving their lobbyists plenty of time to haggle, manipulate and massage the new rules to their liking.

Sodexo picket by SEIU Local 1
The school lunch program was already big business, even before this legislation. The largest supplier of school lunches, Sodexo, made more than $1 billion in profits last year, an 8.1% increase over the year before, much of it from school lunches. The new bill virtually ensures that more federal bucks will pass their way. Despite their huge profits, many Sodexo employees made only $7.50 per hour, qualifying them for SNAP (if there is any of it left), and making their kids eligible for free school lunches. Additionally, two-thirds of their non-managerial employees lack health coverage.

Other supporters of the legislation included the American Fruit and Vegetable Processors and Growers Coalition, ConAgra, Domino’s Pizza, International Dairy Foods Association, Mars Inc., Nestle USA, Coca-Cola, and Tyson Foods.

Fighting Obesity?
Proponents, especially the First Lady, claimed that the bill would fight obesity, a laughable notion considering the bill does nothing to increase kids’ physical activity during the school day. On the contrary, schools across the country have been reducing physical education due to budget cuts and the need to provide more academic support classes to help kids pass their numerous state and federal standardized exams. If the First Lady and congress truly care about making schools healthier, they need to abolish NCLB and provide sufficient funding so schools can retain PE teachers and provide students with at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise daily.

The bill also fails to address why kids today are eating so much junk food. It’s not just that parents and schools are ignorant or irresponsible. The fact is that junk food is much cheaper and easier to obtain by overworked, stressed out parents. One reason for this is that government subsidies make it much more profitable to process corn and other commodity foods into unhealthy products that are much cheaper than healthier alternatives.

The Big Ag Deception
In reality, it is an illusion. That 2 liter bottle of coke seems like a good deal, but it is artificially cheap because the high fructose corn syrup came from subsidized corn, paid for out of our tax dollars. We are actually paying twice for that coke, once in the form of a smaller paycheck and again when we actually purchase the bottle at the am/pm.

A more expedient strategy for reducing obesity is to end the subsidies for big factory farms. As long as we subsidize corn and other commodity foods, growers and processers will be encouraged to produce highly processed, sugary, salty and fatty foods. The money saved could be used to help pay for healthier school lunches.

Another effective solution is to heavily tax junk foods, like we do tobacco. This would not only bring in revenues that could be used to improve the quality of school lunches, but it would also reduce consumption of junk food outside of school, with much greater impact on obesity. Higher taxes mean higher prices, forcing people to think twice about their purchases. The tobacco tax has been particularly effective at reducing consumption by children and a junk food tax would likely have a similar effect.


  1. Thank you so much for this article. I'm so tired of seeing my kids zoned out by the end of the day because they haven't eaten any of the nasty food in the cafeteria. The ones who have their own food rely on chips and sugary drinks to get them through the day. How can a teacher help?

  2. You are welcome. Many teachers help by providing healthy food for their students out of their own pocket. It's generous and helpful, but certainly not a solution.

    School funding must be increased dramatically and corporate ed profiteers must be eliminated. Much of the new law, if adequately funded and not manipulated and exploited by corporate food producers, could go far toward improving the quality of food at schools.