It came as no surprise to me that Michael Graziano and Ernie Park, co-directors of the in-depth documentary, "Lunch Line," are also teachers. Lasting a mere 63 minutes, "Lunch Line" is so jammed packed with information that you'll feel like you just took a college course in the history of the school lunch program. But don't think for a second that you'll be bored. In fact, you'll barely have time to take notes. (And if you have any interest in kids, schools, and in particular school lunches, you will definitely want to take notes.)
"Lunch Line" navigates the history and politics of the program, from its inception in the 1940s as a program aimed to equally benefit farmers, ranchers, students and the government, to its current role today. It includes interviews with Susan Levine, author of "School Lunch Politics, The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program;" former senator and global director of the Food for Peace George McGovern, who was active in the efforts to broaden the school lunch act in the mid-1960s; and school-lunch reformer Ann Cooper (the Renegade Lunch Lady).
Weaved throughout this history lesson is the story of the students at Chicago's Tilden Academy, who won a national competition by making a healthy meal that can be produced in the school lunch room for less than$1 per student. The kids' menu — chicken jambalaya, corn bread, and fresh veggies — is unlike any of the lunches currently served at Tilden and most schools around the nation. Lunches that favor chicken nuggets and hot dogs over freshly prepared foods are the common denominator when schools are forced to focus on pleasing the customer, our kids, and must serve up whatever foods the kids will buy.
I'm still trying to decide whether the overall message of "Lunch Line" is hopeful or simply a warning to throw in the towel. On the one hand, I'm thrilled to see so many folks out there fighting for reform and coming up with new ways to make school lunches healthier within the confines of each school's limited budget. But it was painful for me to realize just how entrenched (a word used frequently throughout the film,) the school lunch program is in bureaucracy. School lunches aren't just about feeding kids; they are about farmers, government, poverty, social issues, nutrition and mass production. Each of those factors makes it extremely difficult to effect real change.
Check out the trailer, or better yet find a local screening of the film and let me know what you think!