Susan Levine, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program

Susan Levine, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program (Princeton University Press, 2008)

You may order a copy of this book here.

Reviewed by Kevin R. Kosar

Each school day, the National School Lunch Program provides reduced cost or free lunches to about 30 million school children. The program, which has been around since 1946, costs taxpayers over $8 billion per year. In view of its size and activities, it is astonishing that so little has been written about it. Susan Levine has done us a service, then, in producing School Lunch Politics, which describes the politics that produced and shaped the program over the decades.

As told by Levine, the National School Lunch Program is a tale of politics and the suboptimal policy it so frequently produces.

The roots of the National School Lunch Program lie in the late 19th century. The science of nutrition was developing rapidly, as chemists and other researchers began to conceptualize food in terms that we still use today—calories, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and vitamins. This knowledge brought about a revolution in the way that people think about food. Hitherto, people either ate whatever was available or whatever their particular culture identified as appropriate fare. Ultimately, the new science of nutrition permitted mankind to adopt rational approaches to eating; food could be selected to provide meals that gave humans their “recommended dietary allowances” of micro- and macro-nutrients and substances. Today’s health food stores, like GNC (General Nutrition Center), are the product of this revolution.

Children’s diets popped onto the federal policy agenda during World War I. In sizing up recruits, the government found surprising levels of malnutrition and stunted growth. Thus, at the behest of “women’s clubs, community groups, health departments, and teachers … examinations and weigh-ins [of pupils] became common in schools throughout the country.” Johnny’s diet and well-being became the business of the national state. In 1921, the federal government expressed its interest in children’s health by enacting the Sheppard-Towner Act, which provided matching grants to states for promoting “the welfare and hygiene of maternity and infancy.”

During the Great Depression the Works Progress Administration operated school lunch programs in 35,000 schools, and the National Youth Administration employed approximately 16,000 pupils in school cafeterias. The key moment came in 1933 with the enactment of a policy that permitted the Department of Agriculture to buy excess crops from American farmers and deliver the foodstuffs to schools.

Linking farmers’ fortunes to children’s nutritional needs provided the alignment of interests needed to establish the Federal School Lunch Program in 1946. Hitherto, advocates for expanding the federal role in the public schools, be it through school building improvements, supplements to teacher salaries, or what have you, had run headfirst into a wall of opposition. Conservatives in Congress, mostly from the South and the Midwest, decried new K-12 policies as socialism, usurpations of states’ rights, and a waste of limited federal resources. Many of these conservatives, though, were eager to back school lunch program as it would funnel federal dollars to their farmer constituents. Thus it was that liberals and paleoconservative segregationists, like Senator Richard Russell, joined arms to pass the National School Lunch Act of 1946.

This was, as Levine indicates, a necessary but costly bargain. Nutrition advocates who wanted to see all children, rich and poor, fed nutritious lunches had to settle for “a school lunch program that was designed primarily as an outlet for surplus food.” Though the program would benefit millions of children, it was not especially well designed. In great part, the food that came to lunchrooms consisted of whatever happened to be in surplus at the moment, be it dried beans, beets, or butter. The program was housed in the Department of Agriculture, so farmers’ interests came first, and the Department did little to oversee states’ operation of their lunch programs. Indeed, from their perches on the Senate agriculture committee, Russell and his colleague, Allen Ellender, saw to it that states’ rights were defended from federal intrusion. State and local officials were free to set whatever criteria they pleased for participation in the program.

More fundamentally, and perhaps surprisingly, the program simply was not designed to feed all the children that needed to be fed. Federal appropriations were not pegged to the number of needy children, and states were required to contribute matching funds, which often were raised by charging pupils for lunch. The program provided no aid to old schools that lacked cafeterias. So, many nonwhite, poor, and undernourished students in crumbling schools did without while white, middle-class kids in new buildings were able to purchase meals on the cheap.

Unfortunately, Levine’s narrative concludes without giving the reader a good sense of how well the school lunch program currently operates. We read that in the 1970s, it was turned into an entitlement program and put on permanent appropriation. We also learn that the feds’ underfunding of the program provoked local officials to start contracting out cafeteria operations to private providers, like Sodexho. The feds also get called out for loosening regulations to permit junk food vendors into the schools.

But the reader does not get the sense that the program now works better than it ever did. Which it does. Agricultural interests, though potent, no longer dominate the program. Today, most of the federal support for the program comes in the form of cash, not surplus food. Administrative tweaks have helped to reduce discrimination and create more uniform operations nationwide.

Still, the program is not what it could be. Since Levine wrote a straight history, she did not include any suggestions for improving the program. So, for the sake of provoking discussion, please allow me to suggest a few possible reforms. First, make the National School Lunch Program free to all children. This would wipe out the stigma that deters children from participating in the program, and would also save localities heaps of paperwork. Second, decouple the program from the surplus commodity program entirely. Children should eat food that is good for them, not what farm lobbyists want them to eat. Third, require the federal government to pay the full cost of the meals served and forbid schools from having vending machines and ala carte dining. No parent of any sense allows her kid to choose pizza over broccoli and to graze on junk food each day. Why should schools? Fourth, have the federal government deliver the federal school lunch dollars directly to each child in the form of a meal debit card, good for one school lunch per day. This would cut reams of red tape and goad schools into serving desirable meals that meet current national nutritional standards.

(This review originally appeared on History News Network on April 7, 2008.)


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