Controversy of the National School Lunch Act

In December 2009, a report was released that showed that fast food restaurants were far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens in beef and chicken than the school lunch program. "We simply are not giving our kids in schools the same level of quality and safety as you get when you go to many fast-food restaurants," said J. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. "We are not using those same standards."

In November 2011, an agriculture appropriations bill passed by Congress garnered controversy for blocking a proposed change by the Obama administration to school lunch regulations, whereby 1/8 cup of tomato paste would no longer have been considered as having the nutritional equivalent of 1/2 a cup of vegetables, but instead only as having the nutritional equivalent of 1/8 cup of vegetables (i.e., schools can only credit a volume of vegetables as equivalent to its actual size). Critics of this move by Congress claim that pressure was placed upon officials voting on the bill by lobbyists representing pizza manufacturers and cheese producers, as it was seen to threaten the ability of schools to serve pizza and credit it with the same level of nutritional value as they heretofore had. Many critics have sardonically summarized the situation as "Pizza is now a vegetable" or "Congress decides pizza is a vegetable". However, others have pointed out that 1/8 cup of tomato paste stacks up remarkably well against a 1/2 cup of vegetables nutritionally, albeit with an excessive amount of sodium that could be argued to reduce its nutritional value.

Public concern
In 1967-68, the national enrollment in public and private schools was approximately 50.7 million, according to a survey of School Food Services in March 1968. About 36.8 million children, or 73 percent, were enrolled in schools participating in the National School Lunch Program with an actual average participation in the program of 18.9 million children, or about 37 percent of the national enrollment.

Reasons for non-participation in the program were numerous but, in low-income areas and large urban centers, low participation was particularly evident. Many of the school buildings in these areas, as well as the small schools in rural areas, were built many years before there were plans for operating a school lunch program, and the buildings did not lend themselves to remodeling for that purpose - neither were local funds available for it. Many of the elementary school buildings in urban centers were built with the idea that the children could and should go home for lunch ("neighborhood schools") and lunchroom facilities were not available. Many of these conditions hold true today.

Some school authorities hold to the idea that a school lunch program must be self-supporting, and others feel that the school has no responsibility in this area. According to a junior high school principal, "We think this is the responsibility of parents and child. We do not check them to see if a student eats. As a whole, we are doing it as a service rather than a need."

The net result is that the children in the neediest areas must go without an adequate noonday meal at school, or perhaps an inadequate evening meal at home, or none at all. Many high school students prefer to bring a bag lunch from home or eat snacks and beverages at a nearby stand or from a vending machine in the school. In some instances the portions served to high school students are not adjusted to meet their needs and they seek other sources of service where their tastes and appetites can be satisfied.

The predominating reason, however, appears to be inadequate funding at federal, state and local levels, with the end result that the children who cannot afford to pay are the losers.

Native Americans and children of color
In December 2014, Indian Country Today reported that 68 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students "are eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches, compared with 28 percent of white students. USDA data indicate that 70 percent of children receiving free lunches through the NSLP are children of color, as are 50 percent of students receiving reduced-price lunches." The article expressed concern regarding efforts to undercut nutrition standards, and notes that several Native American schools are working to improve the quality of school lunches by using produce from school gardens, or tribally grown buffalo meat.