Around the country, children are settling into a new school year and sitting down to eat breakfast and lunch together. Whether they pay full price, a reduced price, or no price at all, school food has been a contentious—and rapidly evolving—topic that touches on health, nutrition, economic class, social status, and more.
To mark Civil Eats’ 10th anniversary, we’re conducting a series of roundtable discussions throughout the year in an effort to take an in-depth look at many of the most important topics we’ve covered since 2009. In the conversation below, we invited four experts to discuss their own work on food access, as well as trends in the field and potential solutions:
Gay Anderson is president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA) and the child nutrition director at the Brandon Valley School District in South Dakota. Janet Poppendieck is a professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York City and the author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America. Bettina Elias Siegel is a writer and food policy advocate; in addition she is a regular Civil Eats correspondent and the author of the forthcoming book, Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World. Betti Wiggins is the officer of nutrition services for the Houston Independent School District and widely recognized as a school food hero.
The topic has gained importance on a national scale, largely thanks to the work of these individuals, as well as longtime champions Alice Waters, through her work with the Edible Schoolyard and push for a sustainable and nutritious free school lunch program for all, and “Renegade Lunch Lady” Ann Cooper. In our wide-ranging conversation, the panelists touched on some of the most significant changes in school food in the past 10 years, including the impacts of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, student lunch debt, as well as the many barriers to feeding kids healthy meals on a microscopic budget—and what solutions exist.
Civil Eats’ editor-in-chief, Naomi Starkman, and managing editor, Matthew Wheeland, facilitated the discussion, which has also been edited for clarity and length.
What has changed over the past 10 years in school food, and how well is the school lunch program serving young people today?
Janet Poppendieck: The biggest change is that it’s now on the radar in a way that it really wasn’t. I think we can credit Michelle Obama with raising consciousness and awareness about school food. The debates around the nutrition standards in the 2010 Child Nutrition Reauthorization got more people interested. But what I’m seeing in the interim is all kinds of local and regional activities, a lot of it associated with the National Farm to School Network, to try to improve the quality of school meals, to integrate more locally produced and locally grown fresh foods.
Gay Anderson: I can honestly say we have seen improved nutritional quality; I think everybody can agree on that. In my own school district [outside Sioux Falls, S.D.], Federal nutrition standards for the most part have been a tremendous success for us. Students are given more options, they’re seeing fresh fruits and vegetables rather than something that may have been frozen or canned. We’ve seen less sodium, fewer calories, we’re watching the fats. And, of course, we’re offering whole grains where we weren’t really doing that at all before.
Betti Wiggins: In the last 10 years, the school lunch program has improved tremendously. I’m going to give a double shout-out to [Michigan’s senior Senator] Debbie Stabenow, who at the time of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, chaired the Senate Ag Committee and made sure language around farm to school was included to support our farmers as well as the local sourcing of food.
Because of farm to school and the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), I’ve had greater participation not only in feeding kids who are hungry because of their economic reality, but also those kids who might be in economically depressed areas because of our economy. Even here in Houston, I’ve been able to feed more children with CEP. Houston is 100 percent CEP eligible because of Hurricane Harvey. We’ve been purchasing more vegetables—the leafy greens and oranges and yellows—because we have salad bars at 157 elementary schools. Now, we are reaching more kids.
Bettina Elias Siegel: I don’t think you can overstate the importance of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in changing school food in the 10 years since it was passed. To echo what Jan said, I’m also very encouraged by so many local and grassroots efforts to improve school food at the local level. And, I don’t want to be a naysayer—I think we are serving children well from a nutritional perspective—but I do still have concerns sometimes when I walk into some school cafeterias and there’s still, for all kinds of reasons, a heavy reliance on highly processed food. And in many cafeterias there’s a heavy Big Food brand presence, in the form of copycat food.
A lot depends on the execution of these nutritional standards. Thanks to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, school breakfast is supposed to include whole grains and fruits daily. In one particular menu—and this is not in any way representative of schools across the country—those standards were being satisfied with a frozen Pillsbury strudel breakfast pastry, sweetened, flavored raisins that are meant to taste like Sour Patch Kids [candy], and chocolate milk. So, in the big picture, we’re doing a very good job, but I do think there is room for improvement.
Poppendieck: Following up on what Betti said about CEP, I often think of it as a piece of stealth legislation. All the attention was on the fight over nutrition standards, and meanwhile this transformational piece of legislation was included in the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. CEP allows individual schools, groups of schools, and school districts with substantial concentrations of poverty to feed all their kids for free, and be reimbursed according to a formula that allows them to break even or even come out ahead financially. It not only gets rid of the stigma and makes the meals fully available—socially and emotionally [as well as financially]—to the students, but it also that frees up funds for better food and more fresh preparation. So, I’d just add that CEP has been the other really big change in the last decade, and we need to protect it in the upcoming child nutrition reauthorization.
Anderson: I liked what Bettina said about how there are a lot of processed foods in schools. One thing that we in school nutrition run into is the reality in some districts across the country there are limited resources for equipment, labor, and skilled workers so unfortunately we do have to rely more on healthy pre-prepared foods so that we can still ensure students are getting a balanced meal each day.
And I mention that about 51 percent of all school districts have 1,000 students or less. So Betti’s got an amazing thing going because she’s in a huge district and she has opportunities that are not there for others of us. I’m not in that small of a district—4,500 students—but some of us don’t have all those resources that we can tap into.
Wiggins: I also want to weigh in on what Bettina said because it’s true. One of the problems that we have to deal with are these highly processed foods. We have five components on the tray [meat (or meat alternatives), grains, vegetables, fruits, and milk]—each one those components has a lobbying group.
In Michigan [which I left in 2017], I did not serve chocolate milk. Now, not even three years later, chocolate milk is back on the menu. The milk producers in that state said sales went down 14 percent because Detroit Public Schools did not use chocolate milk. So, we need to look at the influence of the industry: Are they truly working in the best interest of our children?
I’m finding that in a lot of my classes, they are taking out all of those additives that we found so deplorable. Where we used to have a chicken patty, and now we have a salad bar. That’s an option for elementary school, but as you go up the grade levels, we have to deal with competitive foods being sold elsewhere in our schools that drag our customers away from that healthy meal we have in the cafeteria.
Siegel: I completely understand what you’re saying about why schools serve those foods; one of the reasons why I started The Lunch Tray—and it was very much motivated by Jan’s book, Free for All—was to explain to parents the forces that drive that kind of meal; they are intense, bigger than any district, and not the “fault” of a particular school nutrition director. I really want to always give context for why that kind of meal might be served. And as Betti mentioned, there can be competitive food on the campus, there are so many forces pushing districts in that direction.
The nutritional guidelines passed under the Obama administration have started to get rolled back under the Trump administration. Do you anticipate rollbacks continuing or reversing in the coming years?
Wiggins: We’ve made a commitment here in Houston that we’re not rolling back anything around things like sodium or fat. But because of where I’m geographically located, I have got to have a white flour biscuit; I have got to have a flour tortilla. We tried a whole grain biscuit, and it just didn’t work. Those are the only two things we’re using USDA waivers for, but we’re using brown rice and whole grains and serving whole grain breads. We’re not going backwards. The main thing I’ve been trying to do here in Houston is take chocolate milk off my menu, and it is like climbing Mount Everest because of the impact of the dairy lobby.
The other thing that I‘d like to talk about is lunch timing—when people start talking about plate waste and throwing away food. [Many schools don’t allow enough time for kids to eat a full meal] and when a kid only has five minutes to eat, the first thing he grabs is chocolate milk. The next thing he grabs is the sweetest thing near him, and then you get down to the fresh fruits and vegetables. We also have to take into consideration how we structure our meals.
Poppendieck: The time kids have for lunch is a big topic. We hear all over the country about incredibly short lunch hours, and we know that it’s devastating to nutrition: The kids go for the most familiar and sweetest things first, and they don’t have time to get to the vegetables. But the challenge is that school principals face is if you’ve got 4,000 kids in school, and your cafeteria seats 400, you need 10 lunch hours—so you’re going to start early and make them short.
We need to get over the idea that all the school meals have to be consumed in the cafeteria. We need to begin to experiment with grab-and-go lunches that can be consumed in classrooms while clubs meet. Schools are now experimenting with “breakfast after the bell,” so we know that it’s possible to consume food in classrooms without creating enormous health hazards or what have you. We just need more creative thinking.
Anderson: I don’t like the word “rollbacks”—I don’t see it as a rollback. I like the word flexibility, because our school meals are still healthy meals. Speaking as SNA president, we have checked in with our districts, and 96 percent are saying they will exceed the whole-grain rules, so they are not rolling back things.
But some are struggling with issues like Betti is with her flour tortilla. For me, it’s a whole-grain egg noodle in my homemade chicken noodle soup, which [if we served it] would break down and there’d be no noodles. But the other part was for people getting waivers [to serve some foods that don’t meet the nutrition guidelines] in some states, they’re having to fill out a 29-page document, so they didn’t even bother trying—it was just too much work. I think flexibility is just giving us a little bit of leeway for certain foods that might have been met with overwhelming resistance. But I’m not hearing of operators going back, so I don’t think this flexibility is hindering our progress.
Siegel: Gay, I’m pleased to hear that 96 percent of operators say they will adhere to the standards, but when the standards have changed, you have taken that floor away. I hope they live up to those good intentions, but they no longer have to under the rules. And I am going to call them rollbacks. What they’ve done is put school nutrition standards out of alignment with the science-based Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They’re supposed to be aligned, and now they no longer are.
The process by which that happened was quite troubling. Ninety-six percent of the public comments on those proposed rollbacks were opposed, and nonetheless, the USDA moved forward with them, citing their particular justifications: Increased waste and students rejecting food, all of which was refuted by the USDA’s own study, which came out several months later—which the agency made no effort to publicize.
I absolutely understand that if you have a problem with a particular biscuit or your noodles are just disintegrating in your soup. We already had the waiver process in place so that schools could get a more suitable product. I’m sorry it was 29 pages, but that still strikes me as a far better solution to that problem than an across-the-board nutritional rollback that affects 30 million children every single day. Why not just focus on those particular districts and help them on an ad hoc basis?
Anderson: There were a number of states that didn’t even offer waivers. I don’t have the total number of that, but some school districts weren’t even being offered that option. And I do hear what you’re saying with the low-sodium guidelines and all, but right now, we need a little time in some situations to catch up so we can get to the next target level.
Siegel: But they have now been delayed by seven years. And I’m not in your shoes, Gay, but manufacturers have known these reductions were coming since 2010. It strikes me as an excessively long delay.
Anderson: Even some of those naturally occurring things, like sodium in our milk, that is what hampers me from getting to that next level; [in order to meet nutrition guidelines] I may have had to take off some of my condiments, and I don’t think serving a salad without dressing would be acceptable.
Wiggins: We have the ability to produce some of our own salad dressing, we’re even making our own seasoning packages. But the other thing that no one talks about is calories. No one’s focusing on how much sugar we’re still allowed to have in our food. And we consider that a problem as well. My feeling about the sodium is some of those low-sodium requirements are for a 54-year-old man who has had a triple bypass. We don’t feed people like that every day.
I want the school lunch program to be more descriptive than prescriptive. We’ve got a large enough background and platform to land on. The new food service directors coming in now, they don’t serve sheet cakes or other things like they used to 20 years ago, before Ellen Haas [President Clinton’s undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the USDA] made that first big giant step in trying to make a healthy meals program—I was around then, and it took almost another 20 years to get to the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kid Act.
What do you see as solutions to improve school meals?
Siegel: I think every one of us on this call would be beyond thrilled to see universal [free] school meals. I know this is still a pie-in-the-sky notion, but because of the increased public interest and outrage over lunch shaming, I am at least seeing much more public discussion of universal meals than I personally have observed in a long time. Two Democratic presidential candidates have mentioned it as part of their campaign promises, and I saw the SNA spokesperson mention it in an article. In our political climate, I still think it’s out of reach, but the fact that people are making the connection between lunch shaming and universal meals, is very encouraging to me.
Wiggins: Well, in Houston we have no lunch shaming, because of CEP. I saw the devastation that Hurricane Harvey had—and not just on poor kids. There was no food available for weeks on end because of it, so Houston ISD took it upon itself to start offering free meals. And I changed the language: I said this is not a free meal, this is a meal at no charge. We need to get away from that “free.”
In Detroit, I wrote an op-ed that said this is a value proposition for our country—either for national security or health—that we feed our children well and we need to go back to what it was intended for: This is not just a made-for-poor-kids program. Feeding all children well is in the best interest of this country.
Poppendieck: I also think the language needs to be changed, and I think of school food as an essential, integrated part of the school day. Children are under our care at school, and when it comes time for lunch, we should feed them, and it should be integrated with education because we know that we also need to learn more about food and its health impacts; how it gets to us; and who’s involved in producing it.
But the three-tier system [of full-price, reduced-price, and free school lunches] is absurd, and the communities that have been able to implement CEP are uniform in their enthusiasm for the way it allows them to do a better job and to avoid things like lunch shaming and to know that the meal has the potential to bring people together. This should be a positive time in the school day, not a time when kids distance themselves from each other on the basis of social class.
Anderson: Universal meals would be a dream come true. It would be amazing if our school districts could say, yes students will have enough time to eat every day—because if they have enough time, there’s less waste [and] they’ll take the opportunity to try some things on their tray.
The other piece is that universal meals would help with overall funding. School districts that lose money and have a deficit at the end of the year—guess where their dollars come from? It comes right out of the education fund. So, it’s a vicious cycle.
My favorite line is, “We’re feeding the future, one school meal at a time.” I want to add that CEP has helped in some ways, but we have seen 2 million fewer students eating school lunches every day. The numbers have gone up since the updated nutrition standards took effect, and we need to figure out what’s happening there and how can we get that those students back eating with us. That’s part of why the flexibility is so important for us.
Wiggins: In Houston, participation has gone up. All the time we spent getting lunch money and writing letters to parents [to get them to pay their lunch bills], it has disappeared. My participation went up 7 percent, and Houston was already 86 percent free.
Siegel: Gay, I couldn’t tell if you were pinning that decline in participation to CEP or to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act standards, but since you mentioned flexibility, I do feel compelled to point out that the USDA’s very comprehensive study actually found a positive correlation between school lunch participation and higher nutrition standards. In other words, districts that had a higher standard in their food actually saw an increase in participation. I just wanted to try to dispel this often-repeated myth that kids reject healthier food, because the USDA’s own data refute that.
Poppendieck: If you look back, historically, you’ll see that there’s generally a shift when the economy is better. Fewer people make use of the school food options.
Wiggins: The reason I’ve started to serve meals in schools where I normally would not have served them is the quality of food that we’ve been putting on the trays. The salad bars, some of the offerings that we made around taste, the parents are starting to see that this is a real value. We’re starting to market our services just like a limited-service restaurant. My parents are seeing that, and that’s the reason they participate even if they don’t have to [from a financial perspective].
Anderson: But you’re able to do that, Betti, because you’ve got the resources. Many others don’t.
Wiggins: Let’s put that in context. You have 4,500 kids, I have 206,000. Those dollars proportionally shape what I decide to invest in meals. My district just gave my employees a [pay raise from $10 or $12 to] $14 an hour. I have to tell them I’m not taking a salary increase out of the food budget for the kids. I have to scramble around and find out how am I going to pay this $14 an hour, and that puts me in a very difficult situation. I have to be committed to quality food, because my community will not participate if I don’t have quality food.
What would it take to make universal school lunch happen?
Poppendieck: The first question is: Who pays? Because school meals have been a federal program since 1946, my proposition is that this should be a federal commitment; the federal government contributes little enough to the cost of education in this country. Based on some back of the envelope calculations, I think it would cost about $15 billion dollars a year to make [free] lunch universal. That presumes a fairly high rate of participation. And I don’t think that’s a lot of money [given] the value that it would contribute in terms of the health of our children and laying the pathway for healthy adults.
What it would take to get there is a change in attitude about what it means to serve meals in a public setting. The way we do it now, where we basically sell the meals, but then some people get it free—it’s really an absurd setup, but people think of it as normal. I agree with Bettina that the lunch-shaming issue has raised consciousness, and led people to ask, “What are we doing here? Why is this happening?”
I think it’s really doable. We’ve been fighting for it for 30 years in New York City, and we finally got it. And we’re seeing participation grow, and it grows most rapidly when the universal meal is combined with a renovation of the cafeteria space to a new sort of food court system that the kids find attractive. We’ve seen participation rise by 33 percent in high schools that also got the new food court system.
Anderson: I agree it’s going to take money, but it’s investing in our future. I think the government can make it a priority to cut some waste and put the money where it needs to go, so that our children are well-fed, so that they’re better educated. We have to have some leaders in Washington, D.C. sit down and really put pencil to paper and cut some numbers.
Wiggins: It will take the same kind of commitment from this government that whenever we had a national crisis like we had with AIDS and measles and polio, we decided what we were going to invest in the best futures of our children. You say lunch shaming can raise awareness, I say it pierces the guilt. And I’m ready to ride that guilt all the way to a universal meal program. School meals are the strongest web in our social service program; they can impact the lives of all children. You’re either going to pay for it now or you’re gonna pay for it later.
Siegel: Ever since I wrote about lunch shaming for the New York Times in 2017, it’s been fascinating to watch the constant tweets, about charitable efforts and ad hoc efforts to ameliorate lunch debt. There’s a deep concern about it, and lots of news reports, but all very diffuse, disparate efforts all over the country. And I’ve often thought: How could we channel this emotion toward a true effort for universal school meals?
I think we will never get there unless the School Nutrition Association advocates for it, until it becomes part of the SNA’s legislative agenda, because [Gay’s] organization has tremendous clout on Capitol Hill, and speaks for the lunch programs around the country. I don’t know how we could do it without that kind of really concerted effort, and I think your organization could help provide that leadership. I’d be curious to hear what you have to say.
Anderson: I fully believe that we do need to be speaking out on that. We always have it in papers and in public comments we make. But in the past, we’ve maybe not been as vocal as you may think we should, only because we keep saying that the government doesn’t have money. But maybe we do need to take that on. We’ve got 58,000 voices that could speak very loud and clear, but we also need support from other organizations to do it.
Wiggins: I’m working with the International Food Manufacturers Association, which just started a school food advisory council. We’re talking to the large manufacturers about the importance of school food. These are [also] the guys who can talk to the Congresspeople and all the other folks who can say, “Look, this is in the best interests of our business as well.”
What do you wish the average person understood about school food? And what gives you hope about the future?
Poppendieck: I know this is very self-serving, but I wish the average person would read my book, Free for All, because I wrote it to explain this complicated system to concerned parents, PTA presidents, what have you. I wish the average person understood more about the constraints that school food service providers and directors face, and about the importance of healthy meals in the growth and development of children.
What gives me hope are the grassroots actions that I run into here and there around the country. The National Farm to School Network keeps track of state legislation, and in the last eight years or so, they’ve seen something like 400 different state bills passed that make it easier for schools to purchase from local farmers.
Wiggins: I wish they understood that school lunch is an essential service—it’s not just about feeding kids. It’s about assisting parents and delivering care for their children throughout the school day.
What gives me hope is that we’re here, and we continue to raise the awareness of the people we need to support us—not only inside education, our stakeholders, but even some of the companies outside that are providing services to shareholders. I just know we’re here to stay, and I want people to understand that we are a not-for-profit, limited-service restaurant that is highly regulated and that serves the most precious people in this society: children.
Anderson: It would be nice if people actually understood a day in the life of a child nutrition employee. They wear many hats—they’re working on everything from procurement to nutrition, working with special diets, being part of the education process.
What gives me hope is the fact that we are talked about a lot. Sometimes there’s the negativity that comes out, but when you’ve got something at the center of a topic and you continue to go forward with it and keep standing for what you believe in, there is hope in doing this work and knowing that we all want to strive to have a school meal be a highlight of the day, that kids know is healthy and nutritious.
Siegel: I think I’m echoing everyone here in that I too very much would like the average parent and the average American to have a better understanding of the challenges that school nutrition directors face, many of which we could take off their shoulders if we changed the program. That understanding is essential.
What gives me hope? Honestly this conversation has given me hope, the fact that we’re talking about universal meals, the fact that the School Nutrition Association might get behind a more overt effort toward that goal. And the fact that [these topics are] in the news does give me hope and is something I haven’t seen before.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.