The luncheon was arranged rather neatly. A discreet hamburger sat on half a roll. Six longish French fries lay beside it. Nine green grapes lolled nearby. To the side stood half a glass of milk.
It sounded to me like some forlorn menu for overweight executives. But it wasn't. IT was, rather, a prototype of a school lunch, or what may remain of it, after the budget cuts.
We are about to see the full-fledged Nouvelle Reagan Cuisine for Kiddies. Higher costs and smaller portions. No stars, please.
As you may have heard, dinner with the Reagans in the White House has definitely improved these days. When the Reagans dine with the Anwar Sadats on the federal tab, they eat smoked filet of mountain trout, a roast supreme of duckling a l'orange, a touch of wild rice with raisins, a bit of Brie and chevre, followed by the palate-cleansing melon glace and fresh raspberries.
But under Reagan, lunch in the school cafeteria is quite another affair: an ounce-and-a-half of meat or meat alternatives, a half-cup of fruit and vegetables, one serving of bread, six ounces of milk. Yummy in the empty tummy.
FRAC, the Food Research and Action Center, cooked up the lean-and-hungry lunch described above, by carefully following the new proposals that have come out of the Department of Agriculture.
According to FRAC's Nancy Amidei, the Agriculture people were assigned the task of cutting fat from the budget "without impairing the nutritional value of the meals." But they ended up cutting food.
Under the old requirements, more food was served to older grammar-school kids than younger ones. But under the proposed new rules, the 11-year-olds will get the same amount of meat and vegetables as the 5-year-olds. Even the bread and milk are cut, from eight pieces a week to five, from eight ounces a day to six.
The other changes in rules are even more curious. Ketchup and pickles now qualify as vegetables; tofu (try that on your second grader) now qualifies as a meat; and any school can put its eggs in a cake instead of on a plate.
According to Amidei, the lunches would supply less than one-third of the daily nutritional value and only 17 percent of the calories needed. "We feel this is compromising children's health," she says flatly.
The motto of the Nouvelle Reagan Cuisine -- "Eat Light and Like It" -- would be fine for the statesmen passing up the Brie. But the Department of Agriculture's own study shows that poor kids get anywhere from one-third to one-half of all their daily nutrients from school lunch.
Of the 27 million children who eat school lunches, 12.6 million get a free or reduced rate. If the meal shrinks just when food stamps are being cut and food prices are on the rise, these kids can't make up the difference at home.
There is also a social effect of the Nouvelle Reagan Cuisine. Middle-class parents, who pay the full amount for lunch, are going to balk at paying more for a snack. As a 10-year-old visitor to FRAC said when she spied the prototype meal, "Yuk! Where's the rest of it?"
In our house, after the price went up last week, the brown bags came back. But if these proposals are approved, there could be a national two-track lunchroom, with only the poorest students going through a highly stigmatized free-lunch line. The end result of that is higher costs, fewer schools in the system, and a program goes on the skids.
There is the taste of irony sprinkled over all this food talk. The lunch program started back in 1946 because of the military. During World War II, the draft board had to reject an enormous number of men suffering from poor nutrition. When the School Lunch Act was passed in 1946, they wrote: "It is declared to be the policy of Congress as a measure of national security to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation's children."
Today we have another administration that is worried about the Army, worried that an Army of illiterates will end up operating sophisticated multi-billion dollar military equipment. But as Amidei notes, "At this rate we'll have an Army of anemic illiterates."
If the Reagans will pass me a glass of their Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir, I'll drink to that.