By Susan Richardson Lunch Line, a new documentary about the history of the school lunch program, comes at an important time. The 64-year-old program is up for reauthorization by Congress as part of the Child Nutrition Act, bringing attention to what children are eating, where it comes from and the role of the federal government in ushering food from farms to forks.
The program, created in 1946 by President Harry Truman, is designed to reduce child hunger, but the nutritional value of school lunches has come under fire. Critics say the lunches are loaded with high fat, high calorie and heavily processed food. School lunch officials counter that it is too expensive to provide fresh food to millions of children. With support from the White House, First Lady Michelle Obama's quest to reduce obesity is calling for more nutritional school lunches. Given the attention surrounding the school lunch program, Lunch Line could influence the legislative debate about the future of a program that feeds millions of American children for about $2.68 per child per lunch and has historically enjoyed bipartisan support.
What prompted you to make the film? Do you have an interest in the healthy food movement? I had read Wendell Berry and some Michael Pollan. But we are not food advocacy people. We are constantly looking for new ideas and read a story in The Chicago Reader about The Organic School Project (a school-based pilot program that helps children make healthy food choices) and thought it might yield some interesting things about our society. The plan was to make a verite film. We shot about a year of (the project) then realized the school lunch program begged bigger questions. We needed to talk to people who could answer some of those big questions, like Susan Levine of the University of Illnois Chicago. who has written about school lunch policy. Once we kind of broke the seal on putting interviews in, we thought we might as well talk to a range of people who have been influential in the actual school lunch policy.
Why should Americans care about school lunch policy? It's important for a few reasons. A big thing that gets left out is that it's an important feeding program for 31 million kids, and most of them receive one-half to two-thirds of their total caloric intake from school lunch per day. For many of those kids school lunch is the only square meal they will get in a day, but it's so complicated now with obesity. At the same time as you have hunger as a problem you also have obesity as a problem.
What effect do you think the film will have on the school lunch debate? I think that our film illustrates how policy, politics, money, and nutritition all interact , and how they have interacted historically. And I think if you want to change a system you have to understand how it works. For all that Jamie Oliver did to raise awareness about problems of school lunch in terms of affecting substantive change, you wonder how successful it will be. It may alienate some of the people you need to enroll to your cause to make the change. If we can get people to understand the context or the back story, there is actually a lot more common ground (around the school lunch program) than people might realize.