The National School Lunch Program is a hot topic, particularly now that Michelle Obama and celebrity chefs are drawing media attention to improving school food. Sociology professor and food scholar Janet Poppendieck researched the program and its role in children's health, the national economy, and the national conversation surrounding nutrition programs for her book Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.
To give a comprehensive picture, she combs through USDA reports, attends industry conferences, does a week-long stint in a school cafeteria, and collects lunchtime memories from her college students. The result is a multi-faceted look at the problems facing school lunch, and how we could find ways to improve them.
There are a few key problems with our current school lunch program that Poppendieck spends much time addressing. One is food sourcing and on-site production of hot meals. Much of the food is provided by the federal government at lower cost. But even non-surplus foods are cheap and pre-made—and never very healthy. Often cafeterias are understaffed and there is little time to reheat the frozen hamburgers, pizzas, and fries that make up the vast majority of meals served. The food is often greasy, too hot or partially frozen, and vegetables are barely represented.
Poppendieck also discusses the surprisingly low percentage of students participating in school lunch programs. She delves into the stigma felt by students whose families qualify for reduced-price or free lunch. Many of Poppendieck's college students contribute wrenching memories of being taunted or excluded because they stood in a different line during the lunch hour. Because of this barrier, as well as the complicated application process for receiving low-cost meals that many parents cannot or do not tackle, there is low participation among students who need school food the most.
And even among students who can afford the school lunch program, most choose not to participate. If all of these students were instead seeking out healthy options at nearby eateries or bringing wholesome lunches from home, low participation in and of itself would not necessarily be a concern. But in reality, most students frequent snack cards and vending machines" for what the USDA terms "competitive foods"—those foods that draw students from the "nutritionally balanced" lunch line meals and towards packaged pastries, candy, and soda.
Poppendieck points to numerous initiatives, on both the state and district level, to make school food more appealing, accessible, and healthy for students. In New York City, Hawai'i, Berkeley, and Minnesota, parent organizations and state representatives are working to effect change. But only so much can be achieved one school at a time—and without federal funding to back reform.
Poppendieck believes, as evidenced by the title to this book, that school lunch should be free for all students. In such a scenario, the stigma of receiving a low-cost meal would be eliminated, hungry students would be fed without obstacle, and participation would increase. Yet she notes the difficulties of funding such an effort, and spends several pages toying with various budget and tax shifts to make room for school food programs.
While I hesitate to entertain the improbable notion of an entirely free lunch system, I am on board with much of what Poppendieck is seeking in terms of reforming the content of school food. She feels that the NSLP should be "a nutrition program, not a food program," educating our children about healthy eating and sustaining them, rather than just filling their stomachs. If you are well-versed in school food discourse, this book doesn't provide too much revelatory information. What it does, however, is synthesize various bodies of data into one compelling argument for better food in our nation's schools. Even with recent policy reforms, we are a long way from an ideal lunchroom, and Poppendieck reminds us of all the reasons we must continue to advocate for tasty, healthy school food.
About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.