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by intern Christine Binder

Last month, I attended a meeting of parents at a Brooklyn public school. Janet Poppendieck, the author of Free for All: Fixing School Lunch in America, led a discussion about the state of school lunches, describing to us the changes in the National School Lunch Program over the years, and explaining the various forces that continue to shape what students eat. Afterward, we discussed the potential of the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization – which only happens every five years – to improve school lunches.

In researching for Free For All, Dr. Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, visited school cafeterias and kitchens all over the country, and even spent time working in one. Along the way, she met many people striving to improve school food in their own communities, whom she describes in the “Local Heroes” chapter of the book. It is heartening to hear their stories of success, but I can’t help but agree with her when she says, “It shouldn’t be so hard. One should not have to be a superhero, a magician, or a saint to get healthy, tasty food into the school cafeteria, or to make school food truly accessible to children.”

Currently, there are many obstacles for those working to improve school food. It is very difficult to serve delicious, healthful meals to children with a food budget of less than a dollar per meal. Many schools need to sell junk food in vending machines and snack bars in order to break even. Procuring local food is not always possible, due to bureaucratic and logistical barriers. Poppendieck points out, however, that the National School Lunch Program is ultimately the responsibility of Congress, and that only Congress can “step up to the plate to enact changes in federal law that make local improvements much easier to achieve.”

Towards the end of the meeting, Dr. Poppendieck asked a profound question: “How old will your children be in five years?” Everyone in the room sat in thoughtful silence, imagining the state of school food and the well-being of their children five years from now. When you think about it that way, it’s very clear; America’s children cannot wait any longer for healthy school food. Tell Congress to prioritize school lunches. To quote Free for All one final time, “It’s time to see what we can do if we put children first.”

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