The National School Lunch Program: Feeding Children or Filling Contracts

Started in 1946, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) has primarily been seen as a win-win for both U.S. farmers and children, buying up farm surplus and feeding it to millions of hungry students across the American educational landscape. Ideally, the program chooses food products based off of nutritional content and cost, providing students with the tools they need for a life of healthful eating. However, I postulate this view is too naïve and simple considering the influence of money and lobbying on today’s policy and politics. The central premise of my research will be to investigate the existence and degree of rent-seeking behavior within the NSLP, especially in relationship to the growing obesity epidemic. The program feeds millions of children daily, therefore represents millions of dollars in potential rent. With NSLP stakeholders ranging from PTAs, school nutritionists, administrators, farmers, agricultural businesses, food processors and distributors, and children themselves, there exists the potential for many competing interests and directions for this program.

I hope to build a complete picture of the impact of lobbyists and lobbying on the NSLP by analyzing Library of Congress data, interviewing former Congressional staffers who have dealt with NSLP legislation, and meeting with nutritionists and economists within the USDA to comprehend which foods are chosen and why. This within itself may be the greatest challenge of this research: Finding people who want to talk about how the contract allocation process and lobbying within Congress. It may have only been a few years since Citizens United changed the chemistry between money and politics, but I expect to encounter rent-seeking behavior long before the days of Super PACs. 

As a whole, many works have been written about the unhealthy aspects of the National School Lunch Program, so that is not particularly unique. But, few pieces have approached the obesity epidemic from the rent-seeking side of the NSLP, and it is within that frame that I find this project relevant. And this is more important than ever since Congress will be passing a new Farm Bill this year, 75% of which goes to nutrition programs. The Farm Bill has its work cut out for it with demands to protect farmers from price fluctuations and extreme weather, and complement First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign with anti-obesity initiatives, all while reducing spending. To effectively do this, we must know to what degree rent-seeking behavior has altered the dietary direction of America’s youth and to what degree stakeholders have secured rents, both from the perspective of the President and Congress. The NSLP has many keepers, and I intend to find out which one reigns. We’ll see where it takes me.

Mike Norton

University of Arkansas

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2 Responses to The National School Lunch Program: Feeding Children or Filling Contracts

  1. katelynnoellee says:

    Hello Mike! Your research sounds very interesting! I think this is a really great topic to bring attention to as it involves quite a few political arenas. Have you also considered interviewing state and local officials to get a sense of how NSLP politics unfold at the local level?

  2. This sounds really interesting, Mike! Considering that nearly seventy years have passed since the passage of the original NSLP, I think it will be especially interesting to hear about how the interests and priorities of agricultural stakeholders have changed over time, and what that means for your project.

    Good luck with your research!

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