It’s about time to talk about the bigger picture. School lunches form an integral part of a vast governmental ecosystem; they support nutritional, anti-poverty, and developmental objectives while also ensuring funds recycle themselves back into U.S. agribusiness. Throughout it’s existence, the school lunch has remained among the most popular of social welfare programs—the reality is that children are everyone’s responsibility, so they are “appropriate” targets for federal, state, and local assistance.
However, the history of these programs in New Mexico, and Albuquerque more specifically, reveals the limitation of school lunch policy and practice as it pertains to traditionally underserved communities. Aside from the beginnings of school lunch, where the PTA and volunteers cooked their own recipes, served their own children, and lugged food to schools themselves, the lunch contents themselves often remain mired in a midcentury Anglo-American cookbook. New Mexico’s unique foodways were repeatedly undercut in this subtle way, and although green chile stew might exist as a Friday special, the foods fed to students in New Mexico often bore little resemblance to the foods they ate at home. Cultural appropriateness was not, until recently, even part of the discussion surrounding school lunches; this testifies to the power of dietetic discourses that discounted local food knowledge—children in Albuquerque were eating canned spinach when they could have eaten quelites.
Secondly, the rural and poor character of this state created particular challenges, which remain entrenched in one way or another. Schools in rural areas struggled to adequately feed their students, and had limited local options available when purchasing foodstuffs. When the bounty was good, they got commodity meat and cheese alongside bulk flour and butter, but in a pinch the USDA would cut back their expenses and leave the check with the states, who saved money by buying questionable hamburger meat. What tended to occur instead was a homogenized, repetitive meal plan consisting of whatever commodities could be procured in bulk by the USDA. The state’s poverty also stretched its lunch program budget to the limit. Repeatedly throughout the 20th century, the state raised prices, covertly denied free or reduced lunches, and otherwise slashed costs in their attempt to keep serving lunches. At the same time, subjected to top-down federal policies, New Mexico found itself in conflict. For instance, in order to keep providing free lunches to Native American students, the state sued the federal government over its homogeneous guidelines. Even though my research emphasizes the 1940s through the 1970s, we are not past these problems.
Luckily, school lunches are in the middle of a resurgence. They are analyzed by researchers, policy makers, parents, nonprofits, the first lady, and others interested in the welfare and health of our children. There has perhaps never been a greater opportunity to make an impact on the content of school lunches, despite the struggles over the school lunch standards in Congress this past winter. What remains lacking in these new conversations is a foundation in the history of NM school lunches, local agriculture, and culturally-relevant foodways. The history tells us what mistakes have been made (in some cases repeatedly) and suggests that major change requires we think critically about these lunches as parts of a massive agricultural infrastructure.
I think that the UNM Flagship Farm offers an opportunity to teach to my concerns. I understand that the plan is to utilize it as an experimental and educational resource, emphasizing the process of growing and the knowledge behind food over productive capacity. This, I think, is admirable. My hope is that the Flagship Farm can partner with local schools (not just students, but also cafeteria staff and teachers) to tour the gardens and offer gardening lessons, as other nonprofits such as the Food Corps are already doing in New Mexico schools. I also understand that the farm is committed to demonstrating organic and sustainable agriculture—typically these goals conflict with the tenets of school lunch programs (feed as many children as cheaply as possible) but they needn’t be opposites here. I think history helps synthesize these strands; students using the farm could use my research on historical meal plans to think about what alternative meals would meet nutritional requirements and budget restrictions while sourcing food locally and sustainably. Finally, I think getting students engaged is an important path in modifying the current school lunch system and nutritional failings of American culture; as we experience a food renaissance we can use that enthusiasm to get kids interested in what they eat and how it grows. It’s hard to tear children away from the simple sugars and fats lurking within most snacks (and within schools themselves, when they have vending machines or nearby fast-food joints), but it is a task worth doing. I hope to offer my research in whatever format assists Sustainability Studies the most, and I am happy to be of whatever other help I can provide.