Hungry for shame — who’s trashing America’s school lunch?
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Someone is throwing away uneaten lunches in the school cafeteria. And more is lost than the food.

When students can’t pay for their reduced-price school lunches, some cafeteria workers demand that the children throw the food away rather than eat it. This and other forms of public embarrassment led to the recent introduction of a House bill called the “Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017.”

But on the Cabinet level, it’s a different story.

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Sonny Perdue, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, recently rehashed talking points from lobbyists at the School Nutrition Association. Perdue said too many children throw away their school lunches because they don’t like how healthy meals taste.

 

While Perdue is apparently not worried about shaming hungry children, he is dedicated to trashing the healthier school lunches that former first lady Michelle Obama worked to introduce across the nation.

School children across the United States — or, at least those who can afford to pay for cafeteria lunch — will have “greater flexibility” to consume more salt, sugar and processed grains, Perdue announced.

Under the relaxed guidelines, requirements to serve whole grains will be waived if they are too difficult to meet. Sodium restrictions will be relaxed for the next three years. And chocolate milk will be permitted, increasing the sugar served to kids.

But neither Perdue nor the authors of the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, including its lead author Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), are really talking about food.

In a course I teach on the anthropology of food at Brown University, one of the most important points for students to learn is that food is never only a source of nutrients. Food is used every day to make powerful political and social statements.

Anthropologists have analyzed dishes, meals and cuisines using the same tools grammarians use to diagram language. They have found that the meaning of any meal comes partly from what it is paired with, and its contrast.

In the immortal words of Stompin’ Tom Connors, ketchup loves potatoes. So ketchup gets some of its meaning from what it goes with (fries — a quintessential American side dish).

But there are other kinds of contrasts that do important work, too — like what foods can potentially substitute for others. You may recall the Ronald Reagan administration’s own school lunch misstep of treating ketchup as a vegetable. So ketchup, in the context of school lunches, is also meaningful for what it replaces (a salad bar).

In the same way, what school lunch means is partly a function of what it is and what it is not.

Secretary Purdue’s vision of the school cafeteria makes sense when it is compared to the array of foods people can purchase in supermarkets or restaurants. In those contexts, more flexibility is seen as better, and the individual’s personal tastes and desires can prevail regardless of age or health.

By contrast, the proposed law against lunch shaming makes sense when the school cafeteria is contrasted with other public services. In emergency rooms, for instance, children whose parents can’t pay are still able to receive treatment.

Food is about more than calories, nutrition and ketchup. Food can be a metaphor for ideological matters such as a free market or public services, rights to access, and of course, income and privilege.

In Secretary Purdue’s world, throwing away a school lunch because it isn’t salty enough is the real problem. It’s waste that could be remedied with less regulation and fewer hang-ups about students eating healthy options.

By contrast, the legislators who introduced the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act think the real problem is not the waste but the cruelty of exposing that some families are behind on their lunch payments.

However you slice it, throwing away uneaten lunches in the cafeteria is a symbol, and a symptom, of bigger problems. The real shame is that one-sixth of American households with children experience food insecurity. We have a long way to go to zero hunger.

Jessaca Leinaweaver is an anthropologist at Brown University and a Public Voices Greenhouse fellow with The OpEd Project.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.