School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Programby Susan Levine
Whether kids love or hate the food served there, the American school lunchroom is the stage for one of the most popular yet flawed social welfare programs in our nation's history. School Lunch Politics covers this complex and fascinating part of American culture, from its origins in early twentieth-century nutrition science, through the establishment of the/i>
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Whether kids love or hate the food served there, the American school lunchroom is the stage for one of the most popular yet flawed social welfare programs in our nation's history. School Lunch Politics covers this complex and fascinating part of American culture, from its origins in early twentieth-century nutrition science, through the establishment of the National School Lunch Program in 1946, to the transformation of school meals into a poverty program during the 1970s and 1980s. Susan Levine investigates the politics and culture of food; most specifically, who decides what American children should be eating, what policies develop from those decisions, and how these policies might be better implemented.
Even now, the school lunch program remains problematic, a juggling act between modern beliefs about food, nutrition science, and public welfare. Levine points to the program menus' dependence on agricultural surplus commodities more than on children's nutritional needs, and she discusses the political policy barriers that have limited the number of children receiving meals and which children were served. But she also shows why the school lunch program has outlasted almost every other twentieth-century federal welfare initiative. In the midst of privatization, federal budget cuts, and suspect nutritional guidelines where even ketchup might be categorized as a vegetable, the program remains popular and feeds children who would otherwise go hungry.
As politicians and the media talk about a national obesity epidemic, School Lunch Politics is a timely arrival to the food policy debates shaping American health, welfare, and equality.
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M. J. Garrison
Meghan K. Winchell
Claudia A. Engelmeier
Jayne R. Beilke
"[T]his book is an admirable history of the political landscape of school lunch, setting the stage for future scholarship on this rich and intriguing topic. . . . Levine's book is a fine study of the history of school lunch vis-a-vis welfare programs and politics."Amy Bentley,American Historical Review
"[Susan Levine] traces the [school lunch] program back to the Progressive Era, when localized charities distributed school lunches as a way to counteract malnutrition. But over the course of the program's lifetime, the interests of the agricultural and commercial food industries have largely superseded those of students. Levine provides an in-depth look at how such factors as early nutritionists' disdain for Italian cooking have led to the ubiquitous greasy pizza of today's school cafeteria."Education Week
"Levine chronicles the history of what she describes as the most popularyet flawed and poorly understoodsocial welfare program in the US: The National School Lunch Program. . . . While studies in the politics of food have become popular in the last decade, as have studies of welfare, Levine's work stands out for linking these two areas of inquiry."M. J. Garrison, Choice
"Levine has succeeded in writing the rare policy history that is also a page turner. Her engaging and at times witty prose tells a story of food science, agricultural surplus, gender, race, and the welfare state. She puts a human face on the policy makers in this story, if not the recipients of free lunches."Meghan K. Winchell, Reviews in American History
"Susan Levine's highly readable and politically astute history of the school lunch program explains why things have not worked out as well for that program. The answer Levine provides in this book is quite sobering. Perhaps, the more people read books like Susan Levine's, the more citizens can empower themselves to push past those constraints and begin to address the fundamental inequities that persist in the U.S."Sanford Schram, Teachers College Record
"This book is an excellent resource for FCS professionals involved in food and nutrition, as well as those interested in the early work of Ellen Richards. The illustrations and tables are helpful."Claudia A. Engelmeier, Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences
"[G]iven Levine's thorough account of the political events that shaped the century-long history of American school lunch programs, it is likely that they will find plenty of useful references as they seek to solve the dilemma Levine describes: how to serve up balanced meals with available resources, while attending to economic and racial inequalities. Above all, we are left convinced that school lunch is everyone's problem, one way or another."Sharron Dalton, Gastronomica
"Historians of education should find it to be a provocative study that questions the role of the public school in a new and interesting way."Jayne R. Beilke, H-Net Reviews
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School Lunch Politics The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program
By Susan Levine Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.
Introduction The Politics of Lunch
If you search the Internet for "school lunch" these days, two types of sites will come up. The vast majority of references lead to cheery government articles about "team nutrition," brightly decorated menus from school lunchrooms, and manuals about managing cafeteria budgets. Sprinkled here and there among the search results, however, will be another type of article entirely. Celebrity chefs have lately entered school lunchrooms. They have come to prove that school lunches can be healthy. Their aim is to rescue children from greasy food and teach students to prefer zucchini over French fries. The task is daunting. The chefs are forced to use U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus commodities that hardly make for health-food menus. The chefs must also follow federal nutrition guidelines and meal subsidies, which generally allow for a maximum of about $2.40 per lunch for free meals. But these chefs soldier on, we are told, valiantly bucking the system in order to transform school lunches. Somewhere, buried in the articles, we inevitably find that private foundations are underwriting these experiments. In some cases, the food is subsidized, in others the chefs' salaries are covered-usually at rates considerably higher than those of ordinary schoollunch employees.
This book, in its own way, explains why celebrity chefs and private foundations alone cannot save the National School Lunch Program. Readers will become acquainted with the history of one of America's most remarkable and popular social programs. But they will also learn how the politics of school lunch created structural barriers that limited which children received nutritious meals and that shaped lunchroom menus. The history of school lunch politics encompasses a combination of ideals and frustrations, reflecting, at base, America's deep ambivalence about social welfare and racial equality. It also reflects the tension in American politics about whether public policy should address individual behavior-in this case, whether food policy should focus on convincing people to eat right-or whether policy should address public structures and institutions-for example, fully funding free lunch programs or establishing a universal child nutrition program. The task faced by celebrity chefs in select school lunchrooms is daunting not simply because fast food is seductive and children are conservative eaters. Un-selfconsciously, the chefs are entering an institution only partly governed by concerns for children's nutrition. Historically, concerns about national agricultural policies and poverty policy have regularly competed with dietary issues in the creation of school lunch programs. School lunch is, surely, rooted in the science of nutrition and ideas about healthy diets, but those ideas have never been sufficient on their own to shape public policy (or to change people's eating behavior, for that matter). School lunch, like other aspects of public policy, has been shaped by the larger forces of politics and power in American history.
Since its founding in 1946, the National School Lunch Program has been the target of critics from the right as well as from the left. It is clear that even after more than half a century of operation, the National School Lunch Program is deeply flawed. School meals are often unattractive, unappetizing, and not entirely nutritious. The menu has always depended more heavily on surplus commodities than on children's nutrition needs. Until the 1970s, the program reached only a small percentage of American children and served very few free lunches. All the while, however, the National School Lunch Program stood as one of the nation's most popular social welfare programs. Politicians as savvy as Ronald Reagan discovered that the American public is intensely committed to the idea of a school lunch program, particularly one that offers free meals to poor children. In fact, the National School Lunch Program, to this day, is the only comprehensive food program aimed at school-aged children. Almost thirty million children in 98,000 schools eat school lunches each day. What is more, in most American cities, the National School Lunch Program is the single most important source of nutrition for children from low-income families. Almost 60 percent of all school children nationwide get free school lunches each day: 80 percent of Chicago's public school children qualify for free school lunches; 79 percent of the children in Atlanta's public schools receive free meals; New York City schools regularly feed almost 72 percent of their children for free; and in the state of Texas, over 70 percent of the children eat free or reduced price school lunches. The National School Lunch Program, for all its nutritional flaws, provides a crucial public welfare support for our nation's youth. Without school lunches, many children in this country would go hungry; many more would be undernourished. Indeed, the National School Lunch Program has outlasted almost every other twentieth-century federal welfare initiative and holds a uniquely prominent place in the popular imagination. It suggests the central role food policy plays in shaping American health, welfare, and equality. A history of the National School Lunch Program is thus a crucial mirror into the variety of interests that continually vie for power and authority in American public life.
School lunch politics have been marked by a shifting and not always predictable set of alliances over the course of the twentieth century. At first glance, the program's trajectory appears to be the typical story of American liberalism, thwarted by southern Democrats who held social welfare hostage to racial segregation and states' rights. Indeed, initiated by liberal reformers in the early part of the century, school lunch programs became institutionalized only when southern Democrats agreed to support federal appropriations in exchange for agricultural subsidies and under the condition that there would be limited federal oversight and unlimited local control. The result was a system that perpetuated the nation's deep racial, regional, and class inequalities. But the fact that school lunches involve both children and food, two subjects fraught with powerful cultural and symbolic significance, renders the story more complicated and the players' motives less transparent. It was conservative southern Democrats who, at the end of the New Deal, proposed a permanently funded federal school lunch program. Indeed, the 1946 bill creating a National School Lunch Program was named after Georgia senator Richard Russell, a staunch segregationist and opponent of civil rights. While Russell's first priority was to protect a program he believed would benefit American agriculture, he was also motivated by a lasting concern about poverty in his region and a deep post-war anxiety about national defense, which linked healthy children to the future of American prosperity and strength. Despite his defense of states' rights, Russell nonetheless crafted one of the most enduring and popular federal welfare programs of the twentieth century. Children's welfare confounded predictable political lines again during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when powerful images of hungry children propelled Republican president Richard Nixon to announce that he would, within a year's time, provide every poor child a free school lunch. Nixon vastly increased funds for free meals and, ultimately, turned the National School Lunch Program into the nation's premier poverty program. Once the school lunch program became a poverty program, however, the political alliances again proved surprising. To protect the program's ability to serve poor children in the face of an effective decrease in funds (the new federal monies only paid for free food, not for equipment, labor, or operating expenses), liberal senators like George McGovern, along with anti-poverty activists, found themselves-over the protests of nutritionists who had long opposed commercializing children's meals-advocating privatization. Hoping that fast-food corporations and giant food service companies would be able to bring down the cost of lunchroom operations, these reformers saw privatization as a way to allow lunchrooms to continue to serve both free and paying children. Thus, by the time Ronald Reagan suggested that ketchup be considered a vegetable on the school lunch tray, private commercial interests already had two feet in the door of the school cafeteria.
School lunch politics suggest that children's meals have always served up more than nutrition. Indeed, the National School Lunch Program, from the start, linked children's nutrition to the priorities of agricultural and commercial food interests, both of which carried more weight in the halls of Congress than did advocates for children's health. Most particularly, school lunches have been tied to the agenda of one of the federal government's most powerful agencies, the Department of Agriculture, and, more recently, to the corporate food and food-service industries as well. Nutrition in each of these arenas takes a back seat to markets and prices. During its early years, the National School Lunch Program provided substantial welfare for commercial farmers as an outlet for surplus commodities, but actually fed a relatively small number of schoolchildren and provided few free meals to those who were poor. Since the 1960s school lunches have been a vital part of the American welfare system, characterized by means testing, insufficient appropriations, weak enforcement, and often blatant racial discrimination.
But even as a welfare program, children's nutrition took a back seat to other interests. Most notably, in order to enable school lunchrooms to serve more free meals, the Department of Agriculture eased the restrictions banning commercial operations from school cafeterias. As poor children entered school lunchrooms in large numbers, so did processed meals and fast-food companies. Political compromises, first with agricultural interests and then with the food industry, have no doubt ensured the existence and expansion of a National School Lunch Program and today ensure the availability of free meals for poor children. What those compromises do not ensure is that those meals will provide a healthy cushion for children's growth and development. Ultimately, the answers to the questions of which foods children should eat, which children deserve a free lunch, and who should pay for school meals have bedeviled even the most well intended of policy makers.
If school lunch politics hinge on priorities other than children's health, school lunchrooms nonetheless reveal fundamental American attitudes about food and nutrition. As anthropologists have long observed, hierarchies of power and culture are embedded within the decisions about which foods are deemed suitable to eat, which foods constitute a meal, and which people are appropriate eating companions. Nowhere, perhaps, is the link between food and culture more relevant than in school meals where scientific ideas about nutrition continually vie with individual food choices and the enormous variety in American ethnic food traditions. The very idea of crafting a National School Lunch Program with nutrition requirements and standard menus suggests an optimistic faith in science, education, and reason. But when it comes to nutrition, scientific advice continually changes and Americans tend to ignore expert proscriptions about what to eat. When the National School Lunch program began, for example, nutritionists recommended that children needed a high-calorie diet based on whole milk, cream-based sauces, rich puddings, and butter on every slice of bread. Rooted in the belief that poor, malnourished children were "underweight" and basically needed more calories in order to grow and thrive, the prescription for a high-calorie diet made sense. Today, experts warn about an epidemic of obesity among poor children and excoriate school menus for their high calorie and high fat content. But the current obesity debate reveals more than new nutrition insight. Neither underweight children in the past nor obese children today became that way solely as a result of individual eating habits, lack of nutrition education, or bad food choices. Rather, nutrition is tied directly to social and economic circumstance-for example, family income and access to fresh foods-as much as to individual behavior. How nutrition science is translated into children's health, therefore, has always rested on a larger context than food habits and individual choice.
This book traces the politics of school lunch from its origins in early twentieth-century science and reform to the marriage of children's lunches and agricultural surpluses during the 1930s and the establishment of a permanent federally funded National School Lunch Program in 1946 to the transformation of school meals into a major poverty program during the 1970s and 1980s. One set of major players includes nutrition reformers-education, health, and key welfare professionals, mainly women-who struggled mightily to translate nutrition science into public policy. Another set of players includes farm-bloc legislators and Department of Agriculture officials who created the institutional infrastructure for a national school lunch program. These groups, together with political leaders responding to the demands and interests of their constituents as well as to the popular appeal of children's health, shaped national food and nutrition policies. While the National School Lunch Program, like the American welfare system in general, is administered at the state level, the creation and fundamental outlines of the program-the development of national nutrition standards, eligibility requirements for free and reduced price meals, and the basic supply of donated foods available for lunch menus-emanate from Washington. This book thus views the nature of the school lunch and who pays for it as national policy concerns.
Chapter 1 argues that school lunch programs in the United States originated as part of the modernizing efforts of early twentieth-century social reformers. Using the new science of nutrition, professional women-home economists, teachers, and social workers-attempted to rationalize American eating habits and, in the process, bring new immigrants (and rural migrants) into a mainstream Anglo-American culture. Home economics, a new profession that attracted women who were excluded from scientific and academic careers, used the science of nutrition first to convince low-paid workers that they could "eat better for less," then to assimilate immigrants into American culture, and, finally, to rationalize American diets more generally. School lunchrooms appeared to be the perfect setting in which to feed poor children but, more importantly, to teach both immigrant and middle-class children the principles of nutrition and healthy eating. In this way, nutrition became part of a basic civics training for future citizens. While most school lunch programs before the 1930s were volunteer efforts on the part of teachers or mother's clubs, they drew on the expertise of professional home economists for balanced menus and scientifically formulated recipes. By the 1920s, home economists found an institutional home in the USDA's Bureau of Home Economics, thus linking school meals to agricultural research and, ultimately, to a national network of professionals committed to school lunchrooms both ideologically and occupationally.
Chapter 2 traces the transformation of school lunch programs from local volunteer efforts into state-sponsored operations. During the Great Depression, existing lunchrooms were overwhelmed by the numbers of children coming to school hungry. Teachers and community groups tried to expand school meal offerings by raising donations but ultimately began to look to municipal, county, and state governments for resources. At the same time, a group of agricultural economists in the USDA began to formulate policies to address the severe depression in farm prices. Committed to market-based strategies that ultimately favored commercial farm interests, these policy makers proposed that the federal government monitor supplies by purchasing surplus commodities. School lunchrooms appeared as the perfect outlet for federal commodity donations. With one stroke, the Department of Agriculture could claim to help both farmers and children. By the eve of World War II, schools in every state depended on surplus commodities for their lunchrooms.
Excerpted from School Lunch Politics by Susan Levine
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Robyn Muncy, University of Maryland
Daniel Horowitz, author of "The Anxieties of Affluence"
Meet the Author
Susan Levine is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of "Labor’s True Woman" and "Degrees of Equality".
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