School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program (Politics and Society in Modern America)

School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program (Politics and Society in Modern America)

Susan Levine

Language: English

Pages: 272

ISBN: 0691146195

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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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Composition and Physical Performance: Applications for the Military Service (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1992), 39. Also, Howard Markel and Janet Golden, “Successes and Missed Opportunities in Protecting Our Children’s Health: Critical Junctures in the History of Children’s Health Policy in the United States,” Pediatrics 115, no. 4 (April 2005); 1129–33. By most estimates, in addition, about one-quarter of all draftees were illiterate. 45. E. V. McCollum and Nina Simmonds, Food,

administration after the war, Hoover continued his work in agriculture and food policy.121 Wartime experience in large-scale military feeding operations provided the model for domestic food service industries as well. By the 1920s, hospitals, schools and even some factories were running cafeteria operations on a scale never imagined by Ellen Richards. The war opened the way to an expansion of the food processing industry in the United States and introduced new products like canned foods and

Agriculture was the appropriate vehicle for such measures. As a protege of Minnesota Democratic senator Hubert Humphrey, the Secretary had solid liberal credentials. He chaired Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor Party in the 1950s and served three terms as governor. During a bitter 1959 strike at a meat-packing plant in Albert Lea, for example, he called in the state’s national guard, thus alienating the company management, who preferred to wait out the union action, as well as the union who

eligibility standards and determined benefit rates.46 As the inequities of the nation’s welfare system became more evident, however, particularly the extent to which African Americans had systematically been excluded from the welfare system, Congress came under increasing pressure to establish national eligibility standards. The debate over eligibility standards for school lunches as well as for food stamps, ADC, and other federal benefits starkly exposed the limits of the American welfare state.

1975, the National School Lunch Program operated the third largest food service program in the nation, larger than the Army and trailing only McDonald’s and KFC.63 Major national food corporations increased their school-focused operations significantly as Department of Agriculture restrictions were lifted. In 1969, for example, the Automatic Retailers of America reported that it added the school market to its already lucrative college, hospital, business, and airline operations. A company

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