The National School Lunch Program has long served as a sort of crucible for Americans’ beliefs concerning health and nutrition, acting as a forum in which the normally private and domestic realm of the table becomes a public, political concern and forces citizens to consider the implications and philosophy behind what and how we eat. The first school lunch programs, which date back to the early 19th century, were haphazard efforts more interested in total caloric intake than providing balanced, nutritionally sound meals. The widespread hunger experienced during the Great Depression encouraged that trend; it wasn’t until the 1966 Child Nutrition Act that “nutrition” as such became an explicit concern.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we’ve yet settled on a consensus concerning what nutrition is or how it might be best achieved; remember that ketchup was once counted as a vegetable and that french fries still qualify under modern legislation as “fresh food.” There have been activists in the mode of Alice Waters and Ann Cooper who attempt to revitalize the programs, shifting the focus away from merely providing by numbers (so many grams of protein having taken the place of so many calories per day as the programs’ goal) towards a more holistic set of ideals. Those two are the giants, well-known for their work on a national level; however, many lesser-known activists have been successful in shifting the policies and purchasing practices of their local schools.

Those successes, however, engineered and overseen by people working within their own communities, are being threatened by a piece of legislation recently inserted into the 2009 Agriculture Appropriations bill. It has nothing to do with nutrition as such; it in fact claims to be a measure taken to improve the safety and quality of meat served by cafeterias across the country. Its detractors, however, claim that the National Animal Identification System, or NAIS, will achieve neither of these ends while forcing smaller producers who can’t cover the high costs involved in compliance out of the school-lunch market. The NAIS, basically a tracking program which involves tagging and registering each piece of livestock a farmer owns, contributes to the centralization and industrialization of agriculture, and the economies of scale, as always, are on the side of the biggest producers. It steps away from the recent trend towards local control, the ethic of allowing each community to decide for itself what to buy and where to source it, and towards a heavily regulated system designed around anonymous interactions between producer and consumer.

There are arguments to be made for the program, of course, and its proponents are people with powerful platforms from which to make them. I don’t intend to put forth a polemic on the subject; merely to raise the issue. American public schools serve the nation’s youth, inculcating them with ideas about food that will form the basis of American food culture in the coming years. Further, given the enormity of the purchasing power wielded by the public school system, we really do have to consider what ethical statement is being made by what it chooses to buy. We live, for better or worse, in a consumer culture where ‘voting with your dollar’ is a viable and indeed powerful concept, and it is the public’s dollars that will ultimately make these purchases. If the School Lunch Program is indeed a sort of barometer of the needs and the will of the people is serves, what does this change say about us and our time?