Healthy Hunger-free Kids? The US School Lunch Revolution

Clodagh Harrington

The challenge faced by a new president when attempting to implement meaningful change is often compared to the turning of an aircraft carrier. Bringing about consequential and lasting reform can be a slow, laborious and acrimonious process, and the president must be mindful that his efforts may only bear fruit after he has left office. Barack Obama was perceived, by his supporters at least, as a progressive president, and as someone whose quest for change would place health and social issues high on the agenda. The new administration had well-publicized plans for healthcare reform, and a subsequent priority related to this was the health and nutritional wellness of school children. Continuation of a flawed status quo was clearly undesirable, but inevitably the drive for change brings backlash and criticism from those whose interests are disrupted by this upset. Reform efforts can be reinforced if they are built up on earlier foundations, as was the case when the Obama administration began its endeavour to reconfigure the relationship that American school children had with food.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) into law, continuing an initiative begun by his Democrat predecessor Lyndon Johnson almost half a century earlier. Childhood nutrition

C. Harrington (H)

Department of Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017

E. Ashbee, J. Dumbrell (eds.), The Obama Presidency and the Politics of

Change, Studies of the Americas, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41033-3_9

was recognized early on by the Obama administration as a pressing issue, both in terms of managing the increasing levels of child obesity and the wider issue of poor diet among children at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. Since the statute became law, with its $4.5 billion price tag, the issue of school lunches has become highly politicized. What the administration envisaged and what children needed have lined up. What commercial interests and children sought was another matter.

The path to implementation was far from smooth and offers an insightful picture of how a president can, in seeking change, face staggering political opposition. Childhood obesity has been described by the World Health Organization as ‘one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century,’1 and the debate around responsibility for the problem is contentious. The consequences of poor diet have long been documented, but there is now a growing body of scientific literature that directly connects the poor-quality diet of low Socioeconomic Status (SES) children with physical, psychological and intellectual challenges that reduce their opportunities in life.2 This chapter will argue that the Obamas made every effort on this issue to implement consequential change through a series of stages. Starting from the First Lady’s informal but high-profile platform, and reinforced by the weight of presidential power, they took meaningful steps both symbolically and substantively to address the issue. As government priorities were reconsidered, they implemented legislative change with the intention to recalibrate the relationship that school children have with food.

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