How did school lunches get so bad, and how can they get better? In the new documentary Lunch Line, Michael Graziano and Ernie Park dig deep to find out. The filmmakers, who recently moved their three-year-old company Uji Films from Chicago to Nashville, return for a pair of screenings in April.
How did you pick an esoteric topic like the history of school lunches?
PARK: We had read an article in the Chicago Reader about Louisa May Alcott School wanting to change to all organic. The initial plan was to do a vérité documentary following them for a year, but we realized as we started to cover it that we should see it more as an issue.
GRAZIANO: It opened up to the contemporary discourse about school lunch reform. There are a million websites out there about [why] school lunches need to be improved, but one of the things we found lacking was context and history. We felt we could really contribute to the conversation by letting people know how school lunch came to be what it is today.
You show the program’s origins after World War II as a coming together of government groups that wanted to combat hunger and those that wanted reliable markets for excess agricultural production. But the characters, who were real people, are presented in cartoon form, with the faces of werewolves and vampires. Why?
GRAZIANO: There was some really dry political history that we felt committed to putting in there, and we were thinking [about] how we could make it engaging.
One of the students featured in the film is genuinely obsessed by the Twilight series, and she threw out this idea about how the werewolves and the vampires put aside their differences to fight for Bella, this common cause. We thought that was actually a nice metaphor for the political climate in the 1940s, where the conservatives and the liberals found a way to work together to get the school lunch program passed.
The film explores current efforts to make school lunches organic, but you don’t seem optimistic about that because of a lack of both funding and supply. What improvements can be made now?
GRAZIANO: Getting more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed food. Those are solutions that don’t require huge overhauls.
PARK: The big change that’s going on right now in Chicago [Public Schools] is they’re switching from nutrition-based guidelines to food-based guidelines. On nutrition based, you just have to hit your number marks, with the right amount of calories and vitamins—and you can just bulk up what you’re serving and have nothing to do with the quality of the ingredients. But Chicago is crossing the road to make it food based, and they have people who genuinely care about the quality of the food.
Chicago is leading the way.
GO Lunch Line screens at Gene Siskel Film Center on April 22nd at 6 p.m., as part of the Do Something Reel Film Festival; at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, on April 9th at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and noon; at Northwestern University on April 28th; and at the Evanston Public Library on April 30th. For more info, lunchlinefilm.com.
Photograph: Anna Knott