BOOK REVIEW: School Lunch Politics by Susan Levine

January 25, 2010

The National School Lunch Program keeps making headlines (see our recent blogs here and here). Today, HSC intern Cynthia San Miguel takes a look at School Lunch Politics, a new book from Princeton University Press that unpacks the history behind the National School Lunch Program.

Book-cover
 

School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program by Susan Levine is a well-researched look at the National School Lunch Program. In detailing the history behind the school meals program we see today, Levine articulates how the program came to be — and how it came to be flawed.

She writes that the program began around the time that the science of nutrition came into existence and reformers began efforts to improve the American diet. It was considered a “measure of national security” during WWI, after many young men were turned away from the military due to malnutrition, and it promised hot lunches to children in schools across the country. (For more detail on this aspect of the program's origins and what it means for national security today, check out Mark Bishop's recent blog.)

Her book uncovers a few little-known facts — for example, before the federal government officially established a permanent program in 1946, early versions provided children with healthy meals and lessons about nutrition. As school food became a permanent fixture of the federal budget in the ‘50s, Levine writes, “it also became a potent symbol for the American promise of equality and prosperity in the post-war world.” 

But after it became policy, she explains, the program “bore only slight resemblance to the goals of nutrition scientists and home economists,” depending on surplus commodities from farmers which shaped school menus. School administrators didn't know which foods would be available and were required to accept whatever foods were distributed. Levine treats the reader to stories from school employees who witnessed what children did with a surplus of grapefruits and eggs. 

Levine also explains that in order to serve more free meals, the Department of Agriculture eased the restrictions banning commercial operations from schools, opening the gates to fast-food companies and vending machines. And she points out that back in 1973, Nixon’s nutritional advisor warned about the threat of obesity. 

As for the future, one thing Levine stresses is that the program needs a nutrition education element, informing children about the benefits of healthy fresh food, if we're to stop the obesity epidemic. 

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Want to learn more about school food and raise your voice for healthy school meals today? Check out HSC's Child Nutrition Action Center at www.healthyschoolscampaign.org/childnutrition.