Skip to content
Search

Latest Stories

Top Stories

The American school meal debate: It all comes down to food as market goods or public goods

The American school meal debate: It all comes down to food as market goods or public goods
Getty Images

Long is a senior strategic communications consultant with public, private, and not-for-profit experience. She holds a doctorate in Political Science and a Master of Public Health.

Food security is fundamental to every aspect of human welfare. The inability to consistently access sufficient, nutritious food leaves us harmed as well as hungry. This harm is exponential for children. For them, food insecurity lays its hands on every aspect of their current welfare and leaves damaging fingerprints on their future physical, mental, and social health outcomes.


Despite knowledge of this harm, America lacks clear national consensus regarding the government’s responsibility to provide meals to children – even meals provided while they fulfill states’ compulsory school attendance. Most agree food should be available during school hours, but everything about the terms of that availability remains a matter of running technical and ideological debate. That debate has become especially intense in 2023 with America’s lack of consensus evolving into mutually exclusive positions at loggerheads in current federal nutrition programs and budget negotiations. Even if the negotiations reach some resolution that can pass, America will still lack consensus and America’s child nutritional inequity will continue to grow.

America’s range of active school meal debates is both broad and deep. Technical debates include those over the type of food currently subsidized or served for school meals, such as those regarding the appropriateness of significant meat and dairy allocations from the USDA Food and Bonus USDA Food Programs or the conversion of those allocations into processed foods. Ideological debates include those interpreting what if any relationship exists between U.S. Constitutional references to the general welfare (Preamble and Article I Section 8) and child nutrition, such as those regarding the role of government in countering the nutritional impact of social structural inequalities such as 50 years of stubbornly consistent poverty rates. Demonstrating the problem of consensus is the fact that even technical debates are often not just differences over ideal management options but quick segways into sensitive ideological debates. For example, discussions regarding food service management companies’ (FSMCs) post-1970s involvement in school meal programs and their relationships with food processors may begin with technical evaluations of cost effectiveness and service efficiency but quickly devolve into the appropriateness of government service privatization, especially programs regarding child welfare.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

School meal debates are often divisive and devolve into very sensitive ideological debates because they merge sensitive child welfare with issues with high-stake political interests in welfare programs and budget allocations. Not only do the federal government’s nutrition programs represent the largest title of the Farm Bill’s 12 titles along with billions in current and projected budgetary outlays, but they are primarily focused on America’s most vulnerable citizens. This divisiveness intensified with the end of the federal government’s short-lived pandemic waiver that supported the provision of universal free school meals to all children, regardless of their households’ qualification. Although not intended to be permanent, the waiver’s end brought the issue of school meals to a polarized head. One side aligned around the institutionalization of universal, nutritious free school meals for all children as an essential public good. The other aligned against even the remaining approximation for universal school meals – the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) – as unjustifiable government overreach and excessive expenditure vulnerable to fraud.

Adding stress to this polarized tension is the contentious 2023 budget and 2023 Farm Bill negotiations. Child nutrition programs (CNPs) – including school breakfast and lunch programs – currently represent over 75% of Farm Bill allocations. Registered recipients have grown since the onset of Covid and increasing food inflation. Although this nutrition-agricultural combination has been portrayed as offering common ground between very disparate interests, especially urban and rural interests, that common ground is eroding. As programs grow in size, budget, and qualifying participants, program opponents aim to add qualifying requirements and cut funding exemplified by the new terms placed on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) during the 2023 deficit negotiations and the deep 2023 budget cuts proposed by the Republican Study Committee (the House of Representatives’ largest voting block).

These debates and mounting tension have failed to capture the underlying problem of school meals in America. That underlying problem is not so much America’s lack of consensus about school meals but instead America’s fundamental disagreement about what exactly food means for the country and those in it – including children. Is food an essential public good or a market good? The pandemic-era waiver for universal nutritious school meals brought American debates to a polarized head because it recognized food as an essential public good for all children and essentially recognized government’s responsibility to provide for children’s nutritional welfare. Reverting to a more market-oriented approach in which minimal government intervention is used only to supplement market failures, such as children’s inability to access sufficiently nutritious food, will obviously create problems. The waiver may have ended, but its short duration solidified support for this public good approach as well as a market-based pushback.

The outcome of the 2023 Farm Bill nutritional program negotiations and federal budgetary battles will not settle whether America handles food and nutrition as a food or market good. The issue is instead working itself out on a state-by-state basis. What often isn’t highlighted in coverage of school meal debates is that America does not have a single approach to school meals: the federal government does not directly manage American school meal programs but provides states with qualified funding, leaving many details to states that then leave daily management to school districts. As a result, there is no single American approach to school meals. States differ on issues as broad as whether they mandate school districts maintain federally-backed breakfast or lunch programs, if they incorporate local food systems into meal programs, and how they handle school children’s meal debt. The breadth of this variation is outlined in the Food Research & Action Center’s annual tracking of each state’s school meal policies. These are not just technical differences. They are also ideological, with several states having already passed legislation for universal nutritional school meals for all children while other stats maintaining no specific policies related to mandatory school meal programs.

The resulting variation between states – and even school districts or schools within states – is a local resolution to the lack of national consensus. In states such as Massachusetts, all children have access to universal, nutritious school meals. In states such as Maine, schools must provide children with a meal even if they have accrued debt from past meals. And in states such as Mississippi, schools have no mandates to participate in public breakfast or lunch programs. This variation is not too concerning for families able to move based on state policies. But it is a broad social problem because it increases America’s child nutritional inequity.

Read More

Blurred image of an orchestra
Melpomenem/Getty Images

The ideal democracy: An orchestra in harmony

Frazier is an assistant professor at the Crump College of Law at St. Thomas University. Starting this summer, he will serve as a Tarbell fellow.

In the symphony of our democracy, we can find a compelling analogy with an orchestra. The interplay of musicians trained in different instruments, each contributing to the grand musical tapestry, offers lessons for our democratic system. As we navigate the complexities of governance, let us draw inspiration from the orchestra's structure, dynamics and philosophy.

Keep ReadingShow less
David French

New York Times columnist David French was removed from the agenda of a faith-basd gathering because we was too "divisive."

Macmillan Publishers

Is canceling David French good for civic life?

Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute. This is the latest entry in his series based on the "Enough. Time to Build.” campaign, which calls on community leaders and active citizens to step forward and build together.

On June 10-14, the Presbyterian Church in America held its annual denominational assembly in Richmond, Va. The PCA created considerable national buzz in the lead-up when it abruptly canceled a panel discussion featuring David French, the highly regarded author and New York Times columnist.

The panel carried the innocuous-sounding title, “How to Be Supportive of Your Pastor and Church Leaders in a Polarized Political Year.” The reason for canceling it? French, himself a long-time PCA member, was deemed too “divisive.” This despite being a well-known, self-identified “conservative” and PCA adherent. Ironically, the loudest and most divisive voices won the day.

Keep ReadingShow less
Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer testifies at the Democratic National Convention in 1964.

Bettmann/Getty Images

60 years later, it's time to restart the Freedom Summer

Johnson is a United Methodist pastor, the author of "Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race in Your Community" and program director for the Bridge Alliance, which houses The Fulcrum.

Sixty years have passed since Freedom Summer, that pivotal season of 1964 when hundreds of young activists descended upon an unforgiving landscape, driven by a fierce determination to shatter the chains of racial oppression. As our nation teeters on the precipice of another transformative moment, the echoes of that fateful summer reverberate across the years, reminding us that freedom remains an unfinished work.

At the heart of this struggle stood Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper's daughter whose voice thundered like a prophet's in the wilderness, signaling injustice. Her story is one of unyielding defiance, of a spirit that the brutal lash of bigotry could not break. When Hamer testified before the Democratic National Convention in 1964, her words, laced with the pain of beatings and the fire of righteous indignation, laid bare the festering wound of racial terror that had long plagued our nation. Her resilience in the face of such adversity is a testament to the power of the human spirit.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kamala Harris waiving as she exits an airplane

If President Joe Biden steps aside and endorses Vice President Kamala Harris, her position could be strengthened by a ranked-choice vote among convention delegates.

Anadolu/Getty Images

How best to prepare for a brokered convention

Richie is co-founder and senior advisor of FairVote.

As the political world hangs on whether Joe Biden continues his presidential campaign, an obvious question is how the Democratic Party might pick a new nominee. Its options are limited, given the primary season is long past and the Aug. 19 convention is only weeks away. But they are worth getting right for this year and future presidential cycles.

Suppose Biden endorses Vice President Kamala Harris and asks his delegates to follow his lead. She’s vetted, has close relationships across the party, and could inherit the Biden-Harris campaign and its cash reserves without a hitch. As Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) suggested, however, Harris would benefit from a mini-primary among delegates before the convention – either concluding at the virtual roll call that is already planned or at the in-person convention.

Keep ReadingShow less