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Free for All: Fixing School Food in America

reviewed by Alison Harmon - April 27, 2010

coverTitle: Free for All: Fixing School Food in America
Author(s): Janet Poppendieck
Publisher: University of California Press, Los Angeles
ISBN: 0520243706, Pages: 368, Year: 2010
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In Free for All, Janet Poppendieck provides an education about school lunch. The title of this book is immediately attractive to readers who would re-fashion school meals to offer healthful food in a non-discriminating way to all children without also providing higher priced but enticing alternatives. However, a reader will have to wait until the book’s conclusion to hear an argument for this sensible approach to school nutrition. In the meantime, the author delivers a detailed, well-written, and fascinating account of how we got where we are and the unintended consequences of linking school meals with income maintenance programs for families, scrutinizing nutrients rather than food groups, and requiring school cafeterias to be a source of funds or even self-supporting.      

We begin our school lunch lesson behind the cafeteria line, feeling the pressure to serve all the children something they will eat in the rush of a typical school lunch period. The menu is pizza, burgers, chicken nuggets, and potato puffs. This sets the stage for our journey very nicely, and we cringe when the trays taken by little hands contain an assortment of blandly colored fried foods.

The history of school meals provision is dizzying. School lunch began in the early 20th century as a way to deal with agricultural surplus, and continued with the recognition that learning is difficult if you have not had anything to eat. Feeding children during the school day has been surprisingly controversial, such that, with each new administration and historical circumstance, the program has gotten a make-over. If initially we were concerned about poverty, hunger, and food waste, more recent program changes have been motivated by cutting spending and regulating fat intake. What we have now is what Poppendieck refers to as ‘an impenetrable thicket of regulations and procedures.’ Why is it so hard to feed kids a nutritious lunch at school?       

How has the menu become what it is? In the next well-crafted chapter, Poppendieck reveals how current social concerns, changes in food formulation, changes in families, changes in marketing and federal policies are all interrelated. How the menu has become what it is mirrors the story of how our food system has evolved. The school lunch menu has been invaded by fast food and packaged snack foods. Food service directors offer these alternatives to the reimbursable meal to make financial ends meet and to accommodate the desires of ‘student customers,’ but in doing so create a social justice dilemma (poor kids are stuck in the hot lunch line), and sabotage the purpose of the school meal (competitive foods are victorious). Meanwhile, the reimbursable meal has unfortunately become more like its competition both in and out of school.  

The School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children (SMI) is the current name for the federal government’s efforts to improve the nutritional profile of school meals.  This is where we learn about the perils of using nutrient based approaches in menu planning.  The problem lies in the fact that you can improve the nutritional profile of a meal without improving the meal or improving the quality of the food that comprises the meal. Consumers of school lunch represent a significant market for food manufacturers. If the regulations are complicated and menu planners have difficulty complying—food manufacturers will figure it out and develop packaged products that assume the liability. Unfortunately, the products that have been formulated to meet the nutrient standards, in one food service director’s words, “are not food.”  Finally, if your customers have alternatives that are not required to meet standards—then as Poppendieck explains, this can become an expensive exercise in futility.         

Some students choose not to participate in school meal programs because they do not like the food, they prefer to bring lunch from home, or they have special dietary needs that cannot be accommodated by the school cafeteria. Others do not participate because they cannot afford to—the failure of the three-tiered eligibility structure is surprisingly complicated and disappointing. Still others do not participate because it is frankly too embarrassing. The way school meals are administered and served creates an intolerable stigma that cannot be overcome by many youth. If the reader has forgotten what it is like to be in middle school or high school, this portion of the book will be a reminder of the importance of achieving a positive peer review.      

In the final chapter of the book an advocate is greeted by a group of local heroes who are the instigators of this ‘quiet revolution’ of doing things differently in schools, creating new healthful scenarios, linking with local farmers, and taking new approaches. By then, the reader is literally hungry for some good news.  We all need to be re-educated about food, about the sources of our food, about how to prepare and eat whole foods, and about appropriate portion sizes. School is a logical place to begin re-educating. Lunch should not be a break from learning—Poppendieck suggests that recess can fulfill that role. As this quiet revolution picks up momentum, fixing school lunch could have an enormous impact on the food system. This is a powerful and motivating realization for the reader.    

Universal free school lunch would represent a radical reformation of the way we feed children in school, and Poppendieck has supplied ample evidence that the time for this change is now. Our children are overweight and unhealthy. Poverty and hunger are rising. Meals served in public institutions ought to reflect local food production and support the local economy. School meals should be for all children regardless of means; should view students as learners, not customers; should be an integral part of the school day rather than an interruption; and should be about food rather than nutrients. Making this change would, as the author suggests, be a wise investment in the future of this nation.    

Free for All would be an excellent teaching tool for a variety of academic audiences—a graduate seminar or upper division course on food policy, community nutrition or childhood health, or the food system. The discussions of the complicated relationships among factors that have shaped school lunch and the unintended consequences will assist learners in developing a systems perspective on this and other issues. Additionally, the book is recommended for parents, teachers, school administrators or other advocates who are interested in improving school meals. Poppendieck clearly explains what does not make sense to both casual and academic observers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 27, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15958, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:45:22 PM

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About the Author
  • Alison Harmon
    Montana State University
    E-mail Author
    ALISON HARMON is an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Development at Montana State University where she is works on school meals at the college level. She supervises the operation of a student farm, Towne’s Harvest Garden, is involved in MSU’s Farm to College program, and has helped to create a new degree program called Sustainable Food and Bioenery Systems. Her courses emphasize the ecological, political, and economic aspects of food choices, and she strives to teach undergraduate food and nutrition students to think more broadly about foods, their origins, and the consequences of food behaviors. Her current research is related to interdisciplinary food systems curriculum development and methods used to teach sustainability and food systems concepts to nutrition and dietetic students.
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