Books: September-October 2010

October 1, 2010

Free For All: Fixing School Food in America
By Janet Poppendieck ’67. University of California Press, 2010. 368 pages. $27.50

Greasy pizza. Soggy french fries. Flaccid fruit drowning in sugar syrup. Is it any wonder that school lunches have a bad rap?

In her provocative new book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, Janet Poppendieck explores how a program originally established in 1947 to address childhood hunger has become so dysfunctional. Poppendieck, a sociology professor at Hunter College, chronicles how political, cultural, agricultural, and economic forces over the past six decades have resulted in “a set of programs that thwarts itself at every turn, simultaneously overregulated and under resourced.”

How did school meals devolve from nutritious sustenance to today’s highly processed, nutritionally suspect fare? Part of the equation has to do with the implementation of a three-tiered system, whereby students either pay a modest fee for food or receive it free or at a reduced rate—depending on family income—through the National School Lunch Program operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Citing statistics from 2006-07, the most current data available, Poppendieck notes that approximately three-fifths of school lunches and four-fifths of school breakfasts served nationally are offered free or at reduced rates. Taken together, that translates into seven billion meals a year, and the number has undoubtedly risen as the current recession continues to affect greater numbers of families, she writes.

To offset the non-revenue-producing side of the food equation, school cafeterias offer a-la-carte choices aimed at appealing to students who can afford to pay out of pocket, producing much-needed revenue for cash-strapped schools. Since these options don’t have to meet federal nutrition guidelines, they tend to be manufactured foods that are packed with sodium, fat, and sugar. Some schools even subcontract with businesses like Subway and Pizza Hut to get students to spend money on familiar foods. From a health perspective, Poppendieck notes, that’s faulty reasoning: Cafeteria managers serve only what they think kids will eat, but without healthy alternatives, students don’t really have a choice.

As if there weren’t already enough social jockeying and peer judgment that goes on in school, having students separated into those who get free lunch and those who don’t creates an additional social stigma that can have dire consequences. Making it easy to identify a segment of the student body can further reinforce existing social, ethnic, and racial divides. At some schools Poppendieck visited, free- and reduced-lunch recipients stood in a different line from those who paid for their lunches so that administrators could easily tabulate the average daily participation rate in the federally funded program.
As a result, those students often persuade their parents not to apply for assistance or simply don’t eat, claiming they are full from breakfast or will grab a bite after school. “Experienced principals report that the first question they ask children referred for disciplinary reasons in the morning hours is, ‘Have you had breakfast?’ and the answer is usually ‘No,’ ” Poppendieck writes. “A reduction in such disciplinary referrals is the single most consistently reported impact of universal breakfast programs. Hunger is the enemy of education.”

Yet for all the bad news, Poppendieck sees reasons to be optimistic. She offers examples of programs that are working well. And she notes that people in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors—from members of the medical community concerned about escalating rates of childhood diabetes and obesity to advocates of sustainability who are alarmed at the environmental and health risks of industrialized agriculture—are finding common ground around the imperative of improving school food.

Poppendieck explores the pros and cons of numerous solutions, including additional taxes on wealthier families and shifting fiscal responsibility to state and local governments. But she argues persuasively that the school meals program needs to remain the responsibility of the federal government and posits a bold solution: Offer free lunches to every student. After all, most people would find it anathema to have expensive academic courses (e.g., chemistry classes that require laboratory supplies and equipment) open only to those who can afford to cover the associated costs. “That we have been willing to do this with school food reflects, in part, I believe, our failure to perceive it as an integral part of education,” she writes.

Poppendieck concedes that such a mandate would not come cheap; it would cost approximately $12 billion a year. Yet that’s roughly the average monthly budget for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009, she writes, and the recent bank bailout could have paid for a conversion to universal free school meals for more than half a century.

“Hunger is on the rise,” she writes. “Our children’s health is deteriorating. The environment is under assault. School food reform holds the promise of addressing all of these issues. That is why it cannot wait.”