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Don't Blame Michelle Obama for Disgusting School Lunches. Blame Big Agro.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Something conspicuous is missing from Nicholas Confessore’s New York Times Magazine story “Lunch Money,” about the charged national political debate surrounding public school lunch and new regulations to make it healthier (which means less white flour and sodium and more fruits and vegetables on the tray). Spoiler alert: It’s the actual school lunch. 

Chartwell, a Charlotte, NC, based school lunch service that provides such meals to more than 575 schools in this country, is the one that supplies my kids’ elementary school. The other day when I went to have lunch with them, I bought a plastic tray with barbecue chicken, a sweet potato, and green beans on it. At my kids’ excellent school in a great district, where they are privileged to live, they have only 30 minutes to eat (including bathroom break), and they adamantly refuse to buy a lunch, a decision costing our household both time and money. They hate the look of school lunch so much that they willingly make their own lunches to avoid it. 

I can’t say I blame them. My chicken piece was a back that, unbelievably, had not one bit of chicken on its bones—it was a carcass of a back; the sweet potato had been roasted to the point of achieving a unique cottony texture that both melted on the tongue and yet was difficult to digest; the green beans were covered in what I had hoped was butter but tasted and had the distinct mouthfeel of plasticky margarine. This is the new, improved school lunch everyone’s so upset about?

In Confessore’s walk down school lunch memory lane, he gives the short, sharp facts: that the lunch program has military origins and was proposed to Congress in 1945 by U.S. General Lewis B. Hershey, who testified to turning away 40 percent of draftees due to “poor diet”; that the USDA sends billions to states and even to individual school districts to fund school lunches; and that the 2010 “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act,” which set to right the nutritional wrongs of the lunches, was backed by the White House, the School Nutrition Association (the SNA, a.k.a. “the lunch ladies’ lobby”), and massive Congressional support.

At the meaty heart of this debate sits the issue of childhood obesity. School lunch has morphed from what was historically a semi-dispiriting meal at best into a political battleground, a point of moral panic in the fight against obesity. And in the process our kids’ meals have been dealt out of the conversation. Here I’m talking about the food itself: Even if my spoiled kids condescended to eat school lunch, I’d feel terrible about it—because, in all this call for reform, where did that chicken come from? A commercial processing plant god knows how many states away, where it was shot-through with antibiotics. 

But is turning a meal into a tool of pedagogy effectual at fighting obesity, or is it merely an example of “biopower” run amok? The French philosopher Michel Foucault coined that term in 1976 as a means to explain the nineteenth-century French government’s shift from granting the power “to make die and let live” (think off-with-their-heads) into the power “to make live and let die” (think the advent of institutions like hospitals and prisons).

Gabriel Rosenberg, a historian at Duke University who studies the political economy of food, agriculture, and the environment, points out that teaching kids about obesity has never been shown to reduce its rates. “A frame of ‘bad lunches make kids fat’ is only one way to talk about the politics of school lunches, and it strikes me that it is not the best way,” he says.

When lunch becomes nothing but a symbol in the fight against obesity, we lose the trust of millions of children, many of whom, unlike my kids, don’t have regular access to fresh food. It’s no wonder, as the “lunch ladies” report, that the kids they see don’t “like” the new options—they look and feel exactly like the same depressing old options!

The problem with school lunch starts with an ecological question about the quality of our food, not with fear of obesity. The state has seized control of how we feed our children, and what has it done with it? Ceded it to ConAgra. We need to wrest that control right back. And we need to find our kids some better pizza.