As an organizing metaphor for what school lunch has come to, I can think of no better example than when Mrs. Q found herself being served a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. While the merits of such a dish as lunch fare are debatable — I ate more than my share of PB&Js as a kid — you’d think preparing them would be within the competency of any cafeteria crew: slather peanut butter on one slice of bread, jelly on the other. Combine. Instead, Mrs. Q got something vile and unholy, pre-packaged and branded. It literally made her sick.

With such garbage being served in the lunch line, it’s no wonder kids grope for Chick-fil-A and Cheetos when they get the chance.

What we’re doing in public-school cafeterias is helping brutalize the palates of today’s children. We’re helping mint literally millions of customers for a food industry that generates tremendous profit selling cheap, abysmal, and, indeed, ecologically ruinous food. We are helping to shape the food system that we’ll have in 10 years and beyond: a food system that builds health within communities and ecosystems–or one that does the opposite.

Transforming the cafeteria alone will not transform the food system. The food industry has built up tremendous cultural and economic momentum over decades; having seized control of school lunches is only one facet of its domination over our food culture. But the school cafeteria is the public aspect of that domination — the one ostensibly controlled by citizens through our elected representatives. We all have a stake in it — whether we have children or not, whether we are privileged enough to shelter our kids from the nightmare of the cafeteria or not. And by transforming the cafeteria, we put public weight behind the ongoing grassroots effort to create an ecologically sustainable, socially just, and ecologically sound food system.

As I’ve argued so many times before, the National School Lunch program is pathetically underfunded — it could literally be doubled for the equivalent of one month’s spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. For cafeteria operators, our paltry outlay for school food makes buying quality ingredients and cooking them virtually impossible — creating a vacuum to be filled by corporations that know how to turn a profit while churning out cheap food. Pending legislation doesn’t commit nearly enough extra money to remedy that situation — and, insult to injury, it finances its ultra-modest funding boost by cutting important (and cash-strapped) conservation programs. 

For information on how to make your voice heard on school-lunch legislation, go here and here. And stay tuned on Grist for more reports from the front lines of the cafeteria debates.