How did it get so hard to feed kids healthy food?
This inquiry undergirds most recent efforts to examine what we feed our kids in school, yet from Two Angry Moms to Jamie Oliver's School Food Revolution, the focus has tended to be on documenting what is wrong with school lunch: the chicken nuggets, the greasy crackerbread pizza, the nacho cheeze products, and the mozzarella sticks. But it's the former question that matters most if school lunch is going to change—and that is precisely where Lunch Line, Uji Films's ambitious new documentary that premiered in mid-May, makes its mark.
The film begins by introducing us, via a montage with quietly hip background music (indie rockers Mates of State just agreed to provide additional scoring for the film), to a chefs-in-training team of teenagers in the Cooking Up Change program at Chicago's Tilden Career Academy. The group has just won a school meal contest—fitting, since just under 99 percent of Tilden students qualify for free or reduced lunch—along with a trip to Washington, D.C., where they'll make their winning menu of chicken jambalaya, cornbread, and cucumber salad at a school food briefing.
Mixing footage of the elated students with archival footage of school cafeterias, the sequence (somewhat misleadingly) suggests that we're going to meet and follow the students. We do meet and get charmed by them, and they make a compelling case for the benefits of teaching our youths to cook; the film also profiles efforts in one Chicago school to serve better food through the Organic School Project. But the film's core lies in what comes next: the political and social history that has made the 64-year-old school lunch program into what it is today.
Seven decades of political history is the kind of thing discreet napping was made for, but the filmmakers, Michael Graziano and Ernie Park, hit pay dirt by using striking illustrations and on-screen text to depict, in the style of the Twilight/New Moon storyline, the emergence of an unlikely alliance between anti-hunger legislators (depicted as werewolves) and lawmakers from Southern agricultural states (vampires). It borders on silly, but forgivably so; it's easily one of the most engaging on-screen history lessons I've ever seen.
And, luckily, the lesson is a substantive one, drawing mostly on two behemoths of school food politics: professors Susan Levine and Janet Poppendieck. Levine provides the analytical backbone of the film, while Poppendieck contributes a concise political history of the America's school lunch program—no mean feat given that school lunch began in 1946 and has endured attacks nearly every decade since. Along with additional context from Dan Glickman, Bill Clinton's secretary of agriculture, they make two critical points that often get overlooked: school lunch is both an anti-hunger program and one of our nation's most successful social programs, feeding 31 million children every day.
These points are essentially hidden in plain sight, and Lunch Line deftly reveals their implications. School lunch, in fact, is one of the few entitlement programs left in America. (Before the program was created, congressional debate included representatives warning that "Socialism is not a game to play at with the youngest of our citizens.") It is something of a political anomaly that school lunch has managed to weather McCarthyism, Reaganism, and Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. That's not because of the good hearts of American lawmakers, but because of the program's political strength, which lies—as the film shows—in one of the things that current critics of school lunch often loudly lament: its status as a program of the USDA.