Students are revolting: school lunches

With the help of a sympathetic teacher, students at Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kansas, produced the video above.  They say, in a much more entertaining way than I will, that they’re not getting enough food to live their healthy adolescent lives.

It’s the most visible protest of many local campaigns by students who want something different–or just more–at school lunch.

As Americans, we have to be proud of the stubborn ingenuity of our kids, standing up for what they believe.  At the same time, it doesn’t mean they’re right.

Here’s a story:

Some years ago, my wife complained to the director of a recreational program for my daughter about the cookies and punch snacks that they served.

“But the kids like it,” the director responded.

“I bet they’d also like cocaine,” my wife said.

OK, this is almost silly, but the fundamental problem is that everyone doesn’t always know what’s good–and that we allow ourselves to make decisions for some people in what we think are their interests .  For example: drivers, even skilled ones, have to obey the speed limit; we force children to go to school.  Mandating how federal money for kids’ food is spent is hardly a big stretch.

Controversy about school lunches is nothing new, nor is parody.  Food activists have picked the school lunchroom as one front in a larger battle against obesity (particularly childhood obesity) and malnutrition.  A stalwart in this fight is the Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Ann Cooper, who moved her career from white table cloth dining to the cafeteria.  Working from the bottom up in sympathetic cities (first Berkeley, California, then Boulder, Colorado), Chef Ann works to bring fresh fruit and vegetables plus whole grains into the hostile environment of the public schools.  She wasn’t alone.

A smaller effect of electing Barack Obama as president was giving this healthy school lunch movement a national face.  First Lady Michelle Obama has used her platform to promote healthy food and fitness for America’s youth: just say yes to, uh, kale(?).

Perhaps more significant, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which set nutritional standards for government funded food programs.  You can find the details at the United States Department of Agriculture’s website.

Whole wheat flour appeared in pizza crusts, and even bits of green on the top of the pizza.  Unsweetened milk drove out chocolate, and fresh fruit replaced cookies for desert in complying school districts.

Students protested.

Most just threw out the food they didn’t like, and in most places it was exactly what you’d think the kids wouldn’t like: fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains.

Surely this is demoralizing for the crusading chefs, but their recipe for success is pretty much the same as for parents trying to pack healthier food into their children at home: persist, and keep trying new recipes.

And some students went further, organizing Facebook groups and online protests, and boycotting the cafeteria.  The video was even bigger and better, and it got national play on network news.  Partly, it’s because it’s creative and funny.  Partly, it’s because it was a stick partisan adults could use for beating on the Obama administration. It’s safe to say that most of the grown-ups rallying around the hungry students haven’t been near a school cafeteria in many years, but there are other reasons to join in.  The grown-ups have other grievances with the president–and surely no stake in America’s children eating fries and chips.  This leads to the odd twist of grown-ups defending children’s right to choose a junky lunch (Tom Philpott at Mother Jones), even as they also defend government’s interest in prohibiting adult access to, say, abortion or same sex marriage.

Here’s Jon Stewart’s take.

This is a good story all by itself, but there’s a larger point: the effect of a protest is dependent upon how effective activists are in recruiting influential allies.  Such allies, of course, often have their own agendas.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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