In her book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott compares the process of writing to the trials and tribulations of school lunch:
I know I set out to tell you every single thing I know about writing, but I am also going to tell you every single thing about school lunches, partly because the longings and dynamics and anxieties are so similar…Here is the main thing I know about public school lunches: it only looked like a bunch of kids eating lunch. It was really about opening our insides in front of everyone….The contents of your lunch said whether or not you and your family were Okay. Some bag lunches, like some people, were Okay, and some weren’t. There was a code, a right and acceptable way. It was that simple.
Since I’ve become a parent of school-aged children, I’ve come to see making the lunch as one of the series of hurdles American parenthood makes you jump over: are you too permissive (Capri-sun and chocolate-chip cookies in the lunch box) or too priggish (anything with vegetables )? Are your kids going to eat? Are they going to eat too much (they’re looking pretty hefty already, huh)? Too much packaging and junk food? Gross-looking leftovers?
Or do you just give up and let them buy the school lunch, which if often wildly unhealthy (processed, melted cheese Nachos are just the beginning) is at least something they will eat, and that you didn’t have to plan out days in advance.
The federally-subsidized school lunch program feeds around 30 million kids a day, and it seems to me that, just as to Lamott, school lunches present in miniature the agonies of belonging and class identity that all kids experience, the official school lunch program presents in miniature the challenges that policy encounters in trying to alleviate problems without making things worse.
To begin with, why does the school lunch program exist at all? The standard liberal answer would be, either “kids need full stomachs if we are going to expect them to learn,” or “family budgets are stretched more than enough without buying lunch” or “lower-income parents may be poorly informed about healthy choices.”
My own experience, as a middle-class parent who about half the time gives up, throws an apple and a Nutri-grain bar into the lunch box for snack time and then has the kid buy the school lunch, is that these explanations are mostly incorrect. Look, everyone probably knows that it would be better if our kids ate more fruit and vegetables, but good luck with that. While there are an inexhaustible supply of articles about how poorly food stamps stretch to encompass healthy foods, these articles are mostly wrong. As Mark Palko of UCLA has often written, and as the USDA itself documents in various “healthy eating on a budget” publications, eating moderately healthy on a food stamp budget isn’t impossible, it just requires planning and restraint and a lot of milk, chicken, beans, rice, and potatoes, along with whatever fresh fruits and vegetables are in season.
And yet many parents can’t do this. Hundreds of thousands of American kids (around 5 percent of households with kids) pretty much don’t get regular meals outside of school-provided meals, what the USDA defines as “very low food security.” This is probably not an exaggeration: around 1.2 million kids are homeless, after all. Such food insecurity isn’t necessarily hunger in the third-world sense, but the kids who aren’t getting regular meals are probably hungry a lot of the time.
But back to school lunches. If every parent had sufficient planning and restraint, maybe we would hardly need the program. If every kid were amenable to eating vegetables, it would be much easier to make the program serve healthier foods.
But given a consumer capitalist system that presents a seductive infinitude of choice, given changes in the status of children that make them more reluctant to go along with just anything their parents decide, given changes in family structure and labor participation that leave only a minority of children in homes with a parent who can spend much time preparing lunch, given our diminishing patience and attention overall when competing with the attractions of immersive technology and media, given differential fertility patterns that mean kids are in poorer households than the nation as a whole, given the broad distribution of ability among parents to plan out meals under any circumstances, we are stuck with something not-too-very different from the program we’ve got.
We live in a wealthy society. As Anne Lamott notes, in some ways that makes it harder for any individual family to keep up with the expectations for what should be in your lunch box, what should be in your house, who you should be as a parent or as a kid. The paradoxes and pains of inequality are real.
But when the state steps in to alleviate it, it comes out as greasy cafeteria pizza, sloppy joes, and nachos with processed melted cheese.