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Free for All: Fixing School Food in Americaby Janet Poppendieck
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How did our children end up eating nachos, pizza, and Tater Tots for lunch? Taking us on an eye-opening journey into the nation's school kitchens, this superbly researched book is the first to provide a comprehensive assessment of school food in the United States. Janet Poppendieck explores the deep politics of food provision from multiple perspectives--history, policy, nutrition, environmental sustainability, taste, and more. How did we get into the absurd situation in which nutritionally regulated meals compete with fast food items and snack foods loaded with sugar, salt, and fat? What is the nutritional profile of the federal meals? How well are they reaching students who need them? Opening a window onto our culture as a whole, Poppendieck reveals the forces--the financial troubles of schools, the commercialization of childhood, the reliance on market models--that are determining how lunch is served. She concludes with a sweeping vision for change: fresh, healthy food for all children as a regular part of their school day.
The Washington Post
“Meticulously researched, patiently explicated, potentially groundbreaking. . . . Should be required reading for everyone who eats food, buys food, has kids, or cares about nutrition.”
“[An] excellent, informative book. . . . Poppendieck’s research is extensive and meaningful.”
“A masterful work of public sociology that is likely to play an important role.”
“Sophisticated and nuanced.”
Read an Excerpt
Free For All
Fixing School Food In America
By Janet Poppendieck
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
SCHOOL FOOD 101
My odyssey began in a kitchen, specifically, the kitchen of a high school cafeteria in a small city in a large northeastern state. I'll call it Any Town High School, or Any Town HS. I arrived at the back door of the school's cafeteria at 7:00 A.M. on a cool October morning. The cafeteria manager looked at me quizzically when I introduced myself, then remembered: "Oh, yes, we have you this week." The district food service director had agreed to let me volunteer in the kitchen in order to observe the day-to-day realities of preparing and serving school food. In the school food hierarchy, the food service director is the boss, often reporting directly to the district superintendent, so the manager was stuck with me. She showed me where to stow my pocketbook and issued me a bright red apron while I vowed silently to make myself useful. I wanted them to be sorry, not glad, when I left at the end of the week.
The manager asked me what I wanted to do. I had decided not to hide my reason for being there, but not to carry on about it either. I wanted to fit in. I had invested in a pair of white uniform-style trousers and a white shirt and was relieved to learn that no hair net is required if your hair is short, as mine is, or confined. I explained that I was doing some research on school meals and just needed to get a feel for the work so that I would know what sorts of questions to ask when I interviewed food service workers. I told her that my experience in large-volume food production was limited to soup kitchens, and I needed to know what a typical work day was like in a school cafeteria.
She put me to work chopping celery for a tuna salad she was making: don surgical gloves, remove the leaves, put the stalks through the chopper, throw out the hearts because they are too small for the machine. The tuna salad was not for the students, however; it was for a catered lunch "down at the [school] bus garage." Catering school district and community events is one way that the Any Town food service department strives to break even. Every little bit helps. Catering, as the director had explained, is a way to get more use from the space and equipment, absorb any down time of staff or provide them with extra income through additional hours, and keep the food service department on the radar screen of district decision makers. They cater only school system-related events: school board meetings, awards dinners, faculty meetings, though some districts also prepare food for senior centers or child care programs.
When I finished the celery, the manager suggested that I go help Lila, the chief cook, who is in her seventies and has worked in Any Town HS food service for forty-one years. "Are you supposed to help me?" she asked skeptically, her tone betraying a decided lack of enthusiasm for the arrangement. I nodded, and she said that I could lay out pizza. You get a stack of trays and a stack of parchment paper, you put a piece of paper on a tray. The pizza, frozen, is in a box in segments composed of four triangular slices each, which need to be separated. She wants eight slices arranged in a circle at the top of the tray, with four pepperoni pieces added to each, and four slices across the bottom, separated but undecorated, a 2:1 ratio of pepperoni to plain. Once a tray is complete, it goes into a slot in a 6-foot-tall wheeled metal rolling rack, one tray in every other slot. I picked up speed as I went along, 12 trays of 12 slices = 144 slices. Pizza is an option every day on the high school menu; the middle school and elementary kids get it only when it is specifically on the official federally reimbursable school lunch menu. A single kitchen at Any Town HS prepares meals for the high school and for an elementary school in the same complex. The middle school prepares food for its own students and for an elementary school across town—called a "satellite" arrangement. Another elementary school has its own kitchen and cafeteria. Menus are planned centrally.
While I was disassembling and reassembling the pizza, Lila and her assistant, Laura, laid out hundreds of beef patties, also on parchment sheets. They said the beef was a USDA commodity that had been "sent out" for processing, in this case conversion to uniform frozen patties. Commodities are foods purchased by the federal government, sometimes in conjunction with price support operations, and donated to schools participating in the National School Lunch program. The option to have commodities processed externally and the more recent option to exchange the federal commodities for products already in the hands of the processors have gone a long way toward quieting the complaints of school food workers about federal commodity donations. These changes are welcome at Any Town HS, because maximum use of donated commodities is another essential component of the district's strategy for breaking even. Once Lila and Laura were done with the beef, they opened large white plastic bags of chicken nuggets and others of a reformulated potato product similar to Tater Tots (let's call them potato puffs), also a USDA commodity, and spread these out on parchment sheets on trays. Then we did pretzels; they come frozen raw in boxes. I laid them out (on a parchment sheet, of course), Laura brushed them with melted margarine, and I sprinkled on rock salt. Two boxes' worth (six trays) were laid out in this way, and another two trays were laid out but not brushed and salted; Laura explained that if they didn't need them and had to refreeze them they would freeze poorly if the salt had already been applied; they would add it later if there was demand for more pretzels. The pretzels are for sale in the a la carte line, another essential element in the break-even plan.
When we were done; I looked at the clock, feeling ready for lunch. It was only 9:15, but that is break time; I had a sausage-and-egg croissant left over from the a la carte items sold at breakfast. Lila had a chocolate chip cookie; she and Laura discussed their weekend, and she told us about gathering hickory nuts. It was a good year for nuts; none of us knew why. Black walnuts were also available, but they are very hard on your fingers, Lila said. Hickory nuts have to be cracked with a hammer. After the break, I helped make some sandwiches and set up the serving line, and then it was lunchtime.
The first shift begins at 10:03, with four lunch periods of forty-five minutes each—generous by national standards, for the national mean is just over half an hour, and the most typical starting time, nationally, is 11:00 A.M. I helped Rita on one of the two lines that served the school lunch. Frankly, I don't see how she can do it on her own. Simultaneously, she has to serve the kids, manage the line behavior, and keep the line stocked. Serving is the simplest. That day we had hamburgers, cheeseburgers, plain and pepperoni pizza, and chicken nuggets, any of which could be served with potato puffs. The kids kept asking if the puffs were "free," meaning were they part of the lunch offered for free to eligible children, and she kept assuring them that they were—the published menu for the day had listed french fries, but the fryer was down, so potato puffs were a last minute substitution. Rolls went with the hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and chicken nuggets. The server, standing behind the steam table and wearing surgical gloves, uses scoops to measure out potato puffs and tongs to place the youngsters' choices on their hardened plastic tray-plates. Managing the line is an art. Rita, who works before and after lunch as a bus monitor, kept the kids in order—she did not allow any bad language and was diligent about ejecting any kids who were not in line to buy. She was brusque with them, but gracious about complying with requests—several times she had to stop completely to make a sandwich (tuna), an offering which was available but not prepared ahead, or to fetch a pretzel with cheese sauce from the neighboring a la carte line.
Keeping the hot foods stocked is the hardest part. All the while that we were serving, Laura and Lila were busy cooking additional trays of potato puffs, nuggets, pizza, and burgers. There are two ovens—one at 400 degrees and one at 350 degrees—and they have finite capacity. When food is removed from the oven, it goes to the warmer. Restocking the steam table involves going to the warmer, donning potholders, opening the warmer, which is awkwardly located in the doorway between two lines, removing an enormous tray of whatever, finding a place to balance it while you close the warmer, bringing the tray to the line, emptying its contents into the proper receptacle, and then finding a place for the tray—a place where no one is working or needs to work. If there is space by Belinda, the dishwasher, you can put the tray there, but you must cry out "hot" or "caliente" so she knows it's still hot. Some of my temporary colleagues demonstrated an admirable hip-swinging technique for closing the warmer door—the trickiest part of the process—but it looked downright dangerous to me. (The second line, overseen by Delia, was much closer to the warmer and had a row of counters behind it where reserve items could be stored within reach, making it easier to manage.)
After completing their hot food selection, students had a choice among fruit items—an orange or apple, a box of raisins, a cup of trail mix, or a cup of canned peaches—and they were offered several types of milk in half-pint cartons; then they moved on to a cashier. The cashiers have perhaps the most complex job in the cafeteria. Each lunch must be checked to see that it qualifies for reimbursement and then assigned to the free, reduced price, or full price category so the school can claim the correct amount of federal dollars.
As noted in the introduction, children whose family income falls below 130 percent of the federal poverty line qualify for free lunches; those whose family income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line qualify for a reduced price lunch, for which Any Town HS charges $0.40. The rest pay what is called "full price," although these meals too are subsidized by the federal government and in some cases by the states. The cashier tells me that she knows all of the nearly five hundred children by sight and can look up their status on a master list if she is not sure. In order to protect the privacy of the children, she is not allowed to ask their status within earshot of other children. Some children purchase a prepaid 20-meal ticket for reduced or full price lunch, from which she must deduct each lunch consumed, so going through the line without paying does not necessarily mean that the child is eating free. Some pay cash on the spot. Some supplement the official reimbursable meal with items for sale at checkout, especially the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, the aroma of which began driving me to distraction shortly after I arrived.
In order to be eligible for federal reimbursement, meals have to meet certain federal nutrition standards. Any Town HS uses the food-based approach to menu planning. A complete meal includes meat or a meat alternate such as cheese, beans, or peanut butter (i.e., a protein source); a grain product like bread, rice, or pasta; at least one serving of vegetables; a serving of fruit or a second vegetable; and a serving of milk. Under a policy called "offer versus serve," introduced in the late 1970s to reduce plate waste, a meal must contain at least three of the five components of the federal "meal pattern" in order to qualify for reimbursement. Partial reimbursement for a partial meal is not an option. Chicken nuggets (meat or meat equivalent) and french fries (vegetable) and milk constitute a reimbursable meal; so do a hamburger roll (grain product), french fries (vegetable), and a serving of canned peaches (fruit), though happily, I did not see anyone select that particular meal. Occasionally, the cashier sends a student back to get another item in order to make the meal qualify. Schools not using the food-based menu planning system may use one of several variants of "Nutrient Standard Menu Planning," in which a computer-based analysis checks menus for the requisite nutrients and fat content. In Nutrient Standard (or "NuMenu"), students may refuse up to two of the offered categories of items, but must include an entree. Under either plan, the cashier becomes both the enforcer and the crucial locus of accountability; it does not seem an exaggeration to say that the cashier has replaced the cook as the most important job in the cafeteria.
The a la carte line is on the other side of the cashier, more a window than a counter. Students there paid cash for their selections, which included all of the items we were serving in the federally reimbursable lunch, plus nachos with melted cheese sauce, pretzels (also served with melted cheese), ice cream, cookies, and a variety of beverages. The a la carte line was a constant hive of activity; it is often the longest of the cafeteria's three lines. If students happen to select a set of components that equals the official lunch, they are sold that meal, or that portion of their meal, at the appropriately subsidized price and counted as "participating" in the National School Lunch Program in the day's tally. It is important to the financial health of the operation to capture these meals, as they increase the "average daily participation" (or ADP) upon which commodity allocations are based.
In each 45-minute lunch period, after the line of students has dwindled, we keep an eye out for stragglers but also start getting ready for the next batch: refilling ketchup dispensers and mayonnaise and mustard dishes, checking on the supply of salad dressing, which is offered in big dispenser bottles with small cups for taking away. The kids use enormous quantities of ketchup! There is perpetual cleaning up. Not only the steam table itself, but also the shelf on which the students' trays rest and even the glass "sneeze guards" get wiped down. Any spare minute is devoted to some form of preparation for the next serving period. The last lunch period (from 12:31 to 1:16) is lighter than the others. As soon as the line has subsided, clean-up begins, although the line must remain open until the period is over. There is also lots of prepping for the next day—refilling various condiments, getting a head start on tomorrow's tasks. With another worker I bagged baby carrots for the next day's kindergartners. We were using the little sandwich bags that have a stitched-down fold at the top (not zip lock, not twist tie). The idea was to place six baby carrots in a bag, roll it up, then sort of flip it under the prepared flap. I never mastered this technique in a good fifty tries, all my advanced degrees irrelevant, but in the odd moments available among the immediate demands of the line, we bagged two boxes of carrots. We were ready!
I left at the end of the day—2:30 p.m.—completely exhausted. I hated to admit it, but the nonstop pace far exceeded my normal level of exertion. When I got home, I went directly to bed, still in my work clothes, and slept for two hours. I woke up perplexed. How could so much work at such a furious pace produce a meal that I found neither particularly appealing nor especially healthy? The appeal issue is obviously debatable. I do not fit the profile of the customer the program is trying to serve. In general, the students seemed satisfied with the food, though to me, it both smelled and looked greasy. I was not surprised when Lila told me her grandson, who attends the school, brings his lunch from home. The nutrition issue, however, goes far beyond the preferences of students to the question of the potential of the school lunch program to help improve health in general and reduce obesity and diabetes in particular.
There were healthy choices available at Any Town HS. A quiet young woman spent part of the morning preparing lovely fresh garden salads topped with grilled chicken. I was heartened by the inclusion of this healthy option until I spent the lunch period on Rita's line. I'm sure we went through at least seventy-five students before even one selected the salad. We had dispensed about three to students by the end of the day, and several faculty members bought them. The most popular lunch that first day appeared to be pizza with potato puffs, followed by chicken nuggets and potato puffs. I was impressed by the amount of effort and the easy, dependable cooperation among staff, and amazed by the pace, but I went home my first day disheartened that so much effort could produce food which falls so far from the nutrition goals that are increasingly urged on Americans.
Excerpted from Free For All by Janet Poppendieck. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This
"Sophisticated and nuanced."The Washington Monthly
"[An] excellent, informative book. . . . Poppendieck's research is extensive and meaningful."Gastronomica
"A masterful work of public sociology that is likely to play an important role."Teaching Sociology
Meet the Author
Janet Poppendieck is Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York. She is the author of Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement and Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.
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Name: Hanon Sakuraba, but L like to be called Hanon Sweet.<p> Gender: &female<p> Age: 17<p> Height: *wittle kitty blush* 4"9<p> Appearance: Long deep maroon colored hair, deep gray eyes, and pale-skin.<p> Wears: dresses, uniforms, and long shirts. Hmpf.<p> Persona: shy at first, then fiery and daring.<p> Other: Beware. I hug a lot and have quite the number of pistols in my handbag.<p> Crush: Pssh.<p> ~Hanon Sweet
Diabla: she is a tough character who wears a red dress. She has peculiar orange eyes. She has black hair with red tips. She eats mostly potatoes and loves setting off smoke bombs and burning things. She is thirty. <br> Hawke: he is her brother. Hawke has brown hair and blue eyes, he is very queit and his sister, also queit, does most of the talking. He gets very interested in thing like watches, spoons, feathers, and pots. Especially pots. He is twenty-five. <br> Kitee: she has blond hair and is seven years old. She is very shy and loves cats. She never walks. She has at least five cats following her everywhere and talks to cats instead of people, except her older brother and sister. D&H&lil'k &female&star&hearts
Hieght: 6 feet and 7 inches. <p> Weight: 132.4 pounds. <p> Outfit: A black leather jacket, blue jeans and black boots. <p> Other: Crush: none. <p> Eye color: blue. <p> Hair color: Brown. <p> Skin color: White. Any questions, just ask.