This is my last food blog, and I realized that In my excitement over the menus themselves, I neglected one primary pillar of the school lunch program. It’s called a program for a reason; it has a bureaucracy, a process, and constituents. Political and economic concerns weigh heavily on its existence, especially in a cash-strapped, small state like New Mexico. School lunch, according to some historians, is the most popular and best-received social welfare program in the United States. That grand rhetoric belies the actual considerations paid to it; we as a society are cheap as hell when it comes to feeding our children. However, we are gluttons for regulation; my sympathy for the people who run school cafeterias is at an all-time high. For this week’s blog, I will run the reader through the governmental rigmarole that is school lunch policy, emphasizing New Mexico’s budget struggles of the late 1960s through the mid 1970s.
First and foremost, school lunch is a federal program administered by states via districts, down to the individual cafeterias in schools. This chain of command lends itself to fascinating decision-making processes. I recently discovered (much to my chagrin) that the National School Lunch Week menus actually came down the federal pipeline from the Department of Agriculture. There goes one of my research plans, to be replaced with other menu samples. However, this lends itself to fruitful interpretation, as those menus demonstrate the federal government articulating particular visions of American food. For instance, the Bicentennial celebration, scheduled over 18 months (done to excess, naturally), included around 87,000 schools nationwide, and offered “monthly Bicentennial menus having such themes as the first Thanksgiving, a colonial Christmas, and the Boston Tea Party.” America on a plate! Or at least that was the idea coming down from Washington. I have yet to find out what a Boston Tea Party meal would look like (coffee and biscuits perhaps?). The National School Lunch Week menus are emblems, in a weird way, of what the educational bureaucracy considered American food. Yes, these meals occasionally contain the scent of ethnic food (albeit pummeled into submission by the dominant food paradigms) but they are largely part of a national project that has unintended cultural consequences for little places like New Mexico.
Much like those menus, the economics and logistics of school lunches fall downward onto the state from on high. Sometimes, children and the state reaped federal windfalls, as they did in 1970. Then, the USDA approved new, more expansive guidelines for free and reduced lunch recipients, which allowed New Mexico to offer “between 35 to 50 percent” more low-cost meals to poor students. Importantly, the federal government also ponied up extra dollars; nearly $2 million went into New Mexico’s coffers as part of the yearly plan. This should, I hope, illustrate that historicizing cash flows is vital for understanding the school lunch as a dialectical process between the states and federal government.
However, the promise of extra money did not always mean schools received it. According to an anonymous interview conducted with a Santa Fe school nurse in 1968, funding requests could, and were, slashed at the state level. In this instance, a budget item asking for $50,000 became only $7,000 after the higher amount was denied. Even if they did get the money, local prejudices sometimes conspired to cheat the system, and children, out of their basic right to a lunch. Reports suggested that principals were denying free or reduced lunches for specious reasons, in some instances just lying to students or parents. By 1971 it was clear that the increased monies were still inadequate, as New Mexico grappled with intense poverty and large numbers of free or reduced price lunches. In mid-April, the situation became serious enough that schools in places such as Las Cruces considered shutting down the cafeterias for weeks where funds were too thin. Gretchen Plagge, the state director for school lunches, reached a tentative agreement with the USDA to provide an additional $1.24 million to NM, drawn from states with a surplus (again, note the funding situation here, as the USDA could recall funding from states which had extra). Despite her efforts, this funding crisis continued without much abatement. When the budget is tight enough that administrators skirt regulations, cafeterias close, and students go hungry, it reminds you how fragile social welfare programs tend to be in the U.S.
As I previously spoke about, the Department of Agriculture traditionally provided surplus commodities to schools. This was happening since the Depression, but even thirty years afterward, the same thorny points stuck out. States continued to depend on cheap, bulk quantities of staples such as flour or dry milk, and the federal government’s byzantine purchasing patterns (grounded in an equally problematic and noxious farm subsidy policy) spun webs which bound the state financially. When crop supplies were ample, everybody won, children got extra fresh fruit and meat, and the budgets balanced. However, when commodity shipments came up slim for any reason, New Mexico was left holding the check. As we all know, the government giveth, and the government taketh away.
In late 1972 it became clear that the Department of Agriculture was unable to provide much assistance to New Mexico with direct food supplies. In Albuquerque, school officials hurriedly planned to raise the lunch price by 5 cents. Increasing the price of school lunch? That was front-page news (in Albuquerque, but still). The director of cafeteria services for Albuquerque Public Schools lamented a handful of market fluctuations that led to this drastic action—APS spent over $76,000 extra dollars on cheese because it vanished from the USDA supplies, and meat prices also soared during 1972. Ground beef, a staple for school lunches due to its versatility and cheap protein, rose about 14 cents per pound, a cost the district itself shouldered (this is one of those interesting historical quirks: perhaps it was the horse meat filler which artificially deflated the beef market in Albuquerque during the previous years…)
Through the next year, 1973, this trend continued, with New Mexico taking further steps to balance its dwindling budget. Talk emerged in Santa Fe that they would further increase their meal price (for those keeping score at home, a lunch went from 35 to 40 cents over 1972, with 45 cents as one proposal for ’73; Santa Fe’s schools received the same blow dealt to APS). As part of their budget management, the Santa Fe cafeterias served a “pilot” burger to students. This burger consisted of roughly 30% soy—nothing that should shock the modern reader, given Taco Bell’s faux-meat debacle or the pink slime crisis of recent years, but this piqued interest at the time. This cost-saving measure coupled with other approaches, including a reduction in meats like roast beef and pork, which became too expensive to bid on. I should not longer be surprised at the preponderance of buttered buns, meatloaf, Between horse meat and soy nuggets, is it any wonder the legend of the “mystery meat” became a schoolyard staple?
It takes little imagination to understand that USDA commodity shipments were not an unequivocal good for NM schools. In the previous cases, budgets were left tattered because federal agencies shifted costs elsewhere. In other instances, these deliveries were quite literally a sour deal. When reminiscing about her long career in food services, Cora Lee Bouchier, the cafeteria director for Ranchos de Albuquerque school, described in no uncertain terms that food spoiled. In one instance, the meal plan to have bean burritos was torpedoed by some bad beans. “If in doubt, throw it out!” Even if it was clean, the regulations limited the open market bidding that districts could do for foods outside the USDA purview. In part, it is this bulk commodity system, mixed with the complicated standards and aforementioned tight wallets, that together promoted a homogeneous, boring meal plan in New Mexico school cafeterias. Perhaps we are lucky that students got fed at all during the seventies, and hopefully we can learn a little something from these lean years.