What We’re Reading: School Food

This week is National School Lunch Week and WhyHunger is passionate about the movement to make school food healthier in a sustainable, equitable and just manner. But why is healthy school food so important?

In the United States, many children consume over half of their meals in school, including the over 31 million children who receive free or reduced meals at part of the National School Lunch Program. For decades, low-quality, unappetizing school food has been the rule and nutritious, tasty meals the exception. Happily that balance is beginning to shift due to higher national nutrition standards and changing attitudes towards school food, but there is plenty more to be done to ensure every child has access to nutritious food.  The resources below lend a variety of perspectives to school food reform, from a mini-documentary on a pilot lunch program in San Francisco to a comprehensive book tracing the history and analyzing the current state of school food. There’s a lot to learn and lot to be done when it comes to school food – we hope these resources will encourage you to dive in!

The Debate on School Food The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Acts introduced higher national nutritional standards intended to make school food healthier, but some critics say the standards are overly restrictive and result in lower participation in school food programs, as well as increased food waste. Advocates for the higher nutritional standards argue that the standards are an indispensable part of school food reform, and with time and motivation districts will find creative, affordable ways to adapt their food offerings. 

Why Students Hate School Lunches’, a provocative New York Times piece, aggregates many of the criticisms that have been aimed at the higher nutritional standards by school food providers, district administrators, and students. In ‘Let’s Do Better With School Lunches’, a collection of letters to the editor published in response to Murphy’s piece, a variety of school food experts push back on Murphy’s claims.

‘The War on School Lunch’ is a smart, systematic tour of the history and debate surrounding school food. The article manages to take apart the issues without being overly reductive and makes a clear, strong case for implementing current nutritional standards nationwide.

Free for all: Fixing School Food in America is a carefully researched book by WhyHunger Board Member and Hunter College professor Janet Poppendieck that takes a deep dive into school food in America. Poppendieck teases out the various social and political influences that have shaped school food, as well as community-based and policy-driven efforts to reform it.  She concludes that school food is being approached from a big business perspective instead of a public health one, and lays out the socioeconomic consequences. The book is a journey through the history of school food programs, the state of school food today, and an optimistic vision of its future – free school lunch for every kid in America. This book review (and interview with Poppendeick!) by WhyHunger’s Jessica  Powers offers an excellent peek at the main topics covered in the book.

School Food Reform in Action While school districts all across the country have adjusted their lunch programs to meet new federal nutrition standards set by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, over the past three years, some districts have responded with truly remarkable gusto. Here are a few of their stories.

Central Coast School Food Alliance is looking to build bridges across school districts to share resources, best practices, and aggregate political power to influence legislators and decision makers at all levels of the procurement, distribution, preparation and financing of the school food system. WhyHunger is partnering with CCSFA to support their development.

Social Justice for Lunch: Delta Fresh Foods Initiative at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference This Food Justice Voices piece, created by Delta Fresh Foods Initiative in collaboration with WhyHunger, offeres insights into DFFI’s successful development of a Farm to School program in the Mississippi Delta, contextualized within the intersection of food justice and social justice.

In ‘Serving Up School Lunches of Tomorrow’, a brief but fascinating mini-documentary, New York Times food blogger Mark Bittman introduces viewers to The Future Dining Experience, a new healthy lunch program being designed by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Bittman visits Roosevelt Middle School, one of the schools in which the program is being piloted, to take a look at the program in action and discuss it with administrators and students. Bittman highlights USFSD’s commendable effort to redesign school food in a socially just and equitable fashion, but also probes the affordability and practicality of the endeavor.

The Edible Schoolyard Project was pioneered by longtime food activist (and Chez Panisse founder!) Alice Waters in Berkeley, CA. After Hurricane Katrina, Waters decided to expand ESY to New Orleans in partnership with five public charter schools, and ESY NOLA was born. The organization’s mission is to “improve the long-term well being of our students, families, and school community, by integrating hands-on organic gardening and seasonal cooking into the school curriculum, culture, and cafeteria programs.”  WhyHunger’s Cooking Up Community publication and blog post explore the creative strategies and varied programming ESY NOLA uses to engage students, parents and community members with healthy, sustainable school food.

Get involved! Resources for change These resources provide a great jumping off point for anyone looking to get involved in the movement to reform school food.

School Food FOCUS is a national collaborative that strives to make schools meals healthier, more local, and more sustainable by fostering a network of school food service professionals from large school districts and by helping those districts leverage their procurement power to reform school food.  This toolkit is chock-full of resources that everyone, from school food professionals to first-time community organizers, can use to improve their local school food programs. This is a great set of tools for turning abstract ambitions into a strategic plan for change.

LET’S MOVE!First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative is all about combating childhood obesity and a big part of achieving that goal is raising the nutritional bar for school lunches nationwide. In 2012 Congress took a big step forward by implementing the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, legislation that authorized funding and raised standards for crucial child nutrition programs like the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Summer Food Service Program. Check out the Let’s Move website for resources on school food, including nutritional standards and tips for students, parents, educators and school administrators.

National School Lunch Week During the second week of October, USDA recognizes the important role school meal programs play in providing healthy, appetizing foods to their students. This blog post kicks off National School Lunch Week by sharing their successes  – according to the USDA, 96% of schools are now meeting the new nutrition standards –  and provides links to available resources, trainings, tools and grants to support and empower school nutrition professionals.

This is by no means a complete list of resources on school food reform, and we urge you to use the comments section below to suggest additional sources or share your thoughts on the topic!

This post was written by Communications Intern Maia Bix. Maia is a junior at Barnard College double majoring in political science and economics.


Kristina Erskine