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School Lunch Politics

School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program

Susan Levine
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    School Lunch Politics
    Book Description:

    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 Politicscovers 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 Politicsis a timely arrival to the food policy debates shaping American health, welfare, and equality.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4148-6
    Subjects: History, Political Science, Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations and Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. INTRODUCTION The Politics of Lunch
    (pp. 1-9)

    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...

  6. CHAPTER 1 A Diet for Americans
    (pp. 10-38)

    School lunches owe their origin to the science of nutrition and the efforts of early twentieth-century social reformers to improve American diets and thereby mold American culture as well. Chemists, home economists, and child welfare advocates together engaged in a lengthy struggle to convince Americans that rational, scientific eating habits not only would improve individual health but would raise living standards and strengthen democratic institutions as well. It may have been a leap to go from the kitchen table to the ballot box, but scientists and social reformers alike believed the connection was direct and essential. Efforts to modernize diets,...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Welfare for Farmers and Children
    (pp. 39-53)

    At the end of the 1920s nutrition reformers and home economists were poised to shape a national food and nutrition policy that would address hunger and poverty and at the same time promote modern, healthy diets for all Americans. The economic depression of the 1930s and the New Deal’s vastly expanded federal role in relief, recovery, and social welfare opened opportunities for nutrition reformers, farmers, and social welfare advocates to promote their varied agendas. During the next decade and a half, to a remarkable degree, the food reformers succeeded in their efforts to popularize ideas about vitamins, calories, and nutrients....

  8. CHAPTER 3 Nutrition Standards and Standard Diets
    (pp. 54-70)

    As the United States mobilized for war, nutrition reformers and school lunch advocates seized new opportunities to promote their agendas. Whether on the battlefield or on the homefront, however, decisions about food policy were informed by the twin interests of nutrition and agriculture. The country was, M. L. Wilson observed, “at the beginning of an epoch where it becomes the duty of society, as a matter of public health and welfare, to see to it that all its members get a diet that squares with scientific standards.”¹ That duty rapidly transformed into a matter of national defense. Federal food policy...

  9. CHAPTER 4 A National School Lunch Program
    (pp. 71-88)

    TheLadies Home Journalof October 1944 told American housewives that a new “national disease” threatened America’s children. “Johnny’s bones aren’t straight and Susie can’t seem to grasp her [arithmetic] problems,” theJournalominously observed. Both Susie and Johnny suffered from malnutrition. Writing at the end of World War II, theJournalwarned that malnutrition sapped the nation’s civic strength and threatened domestic as well as military security. The editors suggested a simple solution. The government should provide all American children with a hot lunch every day at school. In other words, Congress should permanently fund the school lunch program that the...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Ideals and Realities in the Lunchroom
    (pp. 89-104)

    During the 1950s the National School Lunch Program became a permanent fixture in the federal budget. It also became a potent symbol for the American promise of equality and prosperity in the post-war world. Popular loyalty to the program reflected a confidence in continued economic growth and in America’s new position as “leader of the free world.” The affluent society and an expanding middle class became articles of faith in post-war political and popular culture. In 1959, when Vice President Richard Nixon promised the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev that the United States would defeat communism with kitchen appliances, he articulated...

  11. CHAPTER 6 No Free Lunch
    (pp. 105-126)

    For the first fifteen years of its existence the National School Lunch Program enjoyed widespread support but fed relatively few children. Those children who ate school lunches generally paid a small fee and received a “balanced” hot meal that was prepared on-site at least partly from surplus commodities. Teachers, principals, and social workers might designate certain children to receive free lunches, but on the whole, few schools regularly provided free meals. Indeed, the period between 1946 and 1960 marked a remarkably complacent time when it came to questions of poor people in America. While a new movement for civil rights...

  12. CHAPTER 7 A Right to Lunch
    (pp. 127-150)

    Once the 1966 Child Nutrition Act promised every poor child in America a free school lunch, a nationwide grass-roots movement quickly emerged, demanding fundamental changes in the National School Lunch Program. During the late 1960s, the widespread activism sparked by the civil rights and anti-war movements spawned a new militancy among northern blacks and students. But civil rights, peace, and hunger also motivated a wide swath of mainstream liberal activism as well. National women’s organizations, long involved in education, welfare, peace, and equal rights, emerged as leaders in the anti-hunger movement formulating what ultimately became the blueprint for school lunch...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Let Them Eat Ketchup
    (pp. 151-178)

    Between 1968 and 1972 the National School Lunch Program was transformed from being primarily an agricultural subsidy into one of the nation’s premier poverty programs. This was not entirely what school lunch and children’s welfare reformers had in mind nor was it what the program’s original political sponsors had intended. The 1940s school lunch advocates imagined a program that would offer healthy, low-priced meals to children and free lunches to those (assumed to be few in number) who could not afford to pay. What happened as a result of mounting pressure to feed the poor, however, was a fundamental shift...

  14. EPILOGUE Fast Food and Poor Children
    (pp. 179-192)

    In June 2003, Congress considered three Child Nutrition bills. The first, a “Healthy Schools and Beverages in School” bill, introduced by Democratic congresswoman Lois Capps, from California, encouraged schools to “improve the nutritional quality of food available in vending machines.” Her bill imposed no new restrictions on vending machines in schools but, rather, aimed to offer “healthy choices” in the machines. The second bill, entitled the “Obesity Prevention Act,” was introduced by Republican congressman Mike Castle, from Delaware, and aimed to encourage school-based programs to “help reduce and prevent obesity among children.” Finally, the third bill, entitled the “IMPACT Act”...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 193-242)
  16. Index
    (pp. 243-250)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 251-252)