No Free Lunch: Power and Politics within the National School Lunch Program


I began my research interested in how the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) could be used as a bargaining chip between Congress and the President, in ways that distort it from its primary intent of feeding children and creating habits for a life of healthy eating. The incentive to distort certainly exists. At 32 million children, 5.76 billion meals served, and over $1.3 billion at stake per school year, the program justifiably garners attention from the food service and agriculture industries, school administrators, and child nutrition advocates.

After a phone call with President Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, it was clear that the Secretary of Agriculture receives constant pressure from Congress to declare certain commodities as in surplus, ensuring that NSLP purchases millions of dollars of product from a given farming region or state. During Secretary Glickman’s term, canned salmon and cherries were the two most purchased commodities by NSLP, which he primarily credits to the congresspersons from the states that produce those commodities. Nevertheless, this is not the first time such an observation has been made. As former New York Congressman Charles Godell once said of the program, “I think we can state without much question that the commodity distribution program was not a program primarily established to feed the hungry in this country.” While he led the USDA, Secretary Glickman also received instructions from the Oval Office to purchase pork in surplus to boost low pork prices and help ensure a Clinton victory in several electorally vital Midwest states.

To my surprise, though, commodities still only provide 20% of the overall calories within a school lunch. They are miniscule relative to the competitive food industry. Items like snack food, candy, and even a la carte items like pizza and hamburgers represent the real adversary to child nutrition advocates and a real ally to congressional opportunism. Unlike a USDA-reimbursable school lunch, these foods have very low or no nutritional standards. 

Dating back to the Carter Administration, the prevalence of competitive foods in cafeterias has oscillated, usually dependent on if a Republican or Democrat is in the White House. Occasionally, school administrators and the private food industry have even worked in unison to overturn nutrition regulations, simply because cash-strapped school districts needed an additional revenue stream. The policy results of an unregulated cafeteria are apparent: staggering childhood obesity and declining nutritional quality.


The final portion of the paper analyzes the context leading up to this regulatory stalemate that the 111th Congress was eventually able to move past by passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a collaborative work of First Lady Michelle Obama, then Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The act expanded Presidential power drastically by enabling the USDA to regulate all school foods, not just those that are reimbursable within NSLP. The new regulations were released by the USDA earlier this month for public comment. Although my topic is a little more unconventional than the others I have been reading about, I look forward to sharing my research with everybody.


Mike Norton

University of Arkansas

(Image Source: Wikimedia; Chart: USDA Food and Nutrition Service)

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