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Lunch Hour: America's School Lunch Program
America’s childhood obesity crisis has generated plenty of scary headlines, statistics and talking heads. “Lunch Hour,” a 2012 documentary by James Costa that takes the fight to the public school lunch tray, goes one better. It talks to the kids we ask to eat the inedible.
“I hate chicken patties. They stink like poop.” “I was learning all about my health in health class, but in the cafeteria they serve you cookies and ice cream.” “I would like to tell [adults] I want you to eat the school lunch and see how we feel.”
The adults in the film don’t mince words about school lunches either.
“I don’t think it’s healthy, but I have to serve it to 600 kids. Parents don’t understand what they’re being served. If they knew ... I think they would be upset,” admits Principal Joanne Goubourn of the Hyde School in New York City.
“If you look at the disparity between poor neighborhoods, middle-class neighborhoods and upper middle-class neighborhoods and you examine the school lunch programs ... you would see that food becomes another equity issue for children in the United States,” according to Maryann Hedaa, managing director at Hunts Point Alliance for Children in New York City.
Rachel Ray, whose Yum-O nonprofit foundation works to empower children and families to eat and cook better, is more concise: “It’s barely food.”
“Lunch Hour” shows Sept. 8 as the second featured film in River City Company’s Movies at The 700 Block outdoor film series, in partnership with the Arts and Education Council. It’s on a double bill at 8:45 p.m. on the (for now) empty lot River City owns on the 700 block of Market Street, followed by “E.T. The Extraterrestrial.”
The roots of the problem go back to the Great Depression. Farm prices were so low that farmers produced everything they possibly could, leading to too much food, even lower farm prices and more bankrupt farmers. That’s when the federal government first began buying excess farm products—especially milk and cheese—and selling them cheap to schools.
In the last 80 years, those roots have grown into a tangle of competing interests. The film lays out the forces arrayed against American children, including:
Federal policies: Budget cuts in the early 1980s, intended to force school lunch programs to operate more like a business, have meant that schools feel forced to offer the junk food they know kids will choose, in order to receive federal reimbursements based on the number of children eating lunches. Nationwide, school lunch programs now receive $2.77 per child, and only 90 cents of that actually buys food. (In contrast to $5 per meal at a senior center and $7 per meal at a free soup kitchen cited by one person in the film.)
Bad food: Much of the food schools receive through subsidized—and often mandatory—government channels is the lowest quality food, like “spent hen meat” from chickens too old to lay eggs any more, which has no commercial market except pet food.
Industry lobbyists: With the federal government subsidizing seven billion meals a year for students in 99,000 schools, every food industry group lobbies hard for its piece of the pie. For example, milk is required to be on school lunch lines, even though it is not an essential nutrient and children in cultures all over the world do just find without it. Schools are reimbursed for buying milk, meat and cheese —all foods with strong lobbying groups—but not for salad bars.
Costa prefers not to point fingers, but he won’t let anyone off the hook.
“Everyone is part of the problem. Nobody gets a free pass, nobody,” he insists. “Pointing fingers is not going to get us anywhere. I don’t want anyone to say ‘It’s that guy’s fault,’ and then walk away and say ‘Not my problem.’ No, it’s everyone’s fault. We allowed this to happen, and it’s wrong. These are kids that rely on us to take care of them. Type 2 diabetes is becoming normal now. Why are we giving them food that’s going to make them sick?”
His film does show plenty of hopeful signs. “Rooftop gardens in schools are taking off everywhere,” he says. “Chefs around the country are coming into schools and saying ‘You need to feed 600-1000 kids, that’s tough work. We feed 500 a night. We can show you some things.’”
He says he sees many schools trying to change, “But there are also a lot of schools where they just don’t want things to change because if the parents aren’t complaining they think everything is fine.”
Even in a time of tight budgets, Costa wants change now.
“If we let this slip by, we’re going to have another generation of sick children. We can’t afford that. It’s a huge burden on health care, the military, everyone. And it can be fixed by getting people to eat healthy foods. We can easily put a stop to it, but we have to have the courage to do it.”