“We have made serving lunch to children in school really complicated and inconvenient.” – Janet Poppendieck
This week, scholar, activist, and sociology professor Janet Poppendieck visited BU for a lecture titled Universal Free School Meals: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. I am embarrassed to admit that when I first saw the advertisement for this lecture, I interpreted it to mean that Poppendieck thought that the time was up for school lunch, and that school lunch was perhaps a fruitless pursuit.
Thankfully, I read Poppendieck’s new book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America, and quickly discovered that I was wrong. Poppendieck’s central argument is that a universal free lunch would help to alleviate many of the ills associated with school food, and she gives well-researched examples of why this may be.
Admittedly, the book started off as a repetition of things that I already knew about the school lunch program. School food today is often frozen and prepackaged. Menu choices are often carnival foods such as fries and pizza. The history of the school lunch program as a commodity program has allowed it to become this way.
However, Poppendieck’s discussion of the problems with means testing and the tiered eligibility system in chapter 7 introduced a new wave of thought to me. Poppendieck argues that the 3-tiered system breeds resentment and cheating, and also creates problems that interfere with the purpose of the program. To this point, I knew that students in the reduced price category oftentimes do not have enough money to pay even the reduced price. However, I was surprised to learn that 21% of families with very low food insecurity (formerly known as food security with hunger) have incomes too high to qualify for free or reduced price lunches. This shocking statistic is surely the sign of a broken system.
Fruit & Veggie set up (typical of what I saw in Austin Independent School District)
While universal free lunch might sound fine and dandy, the biggest question I had was about how a multibillion-dollar program like that would get funded. Luckily, Poppendieck did address the financial issue. “There is no such thing as a free lunch, but how we pay for it is a social choice,” she said to the audience. While her book, written at the peak of the economic downturn, mostly focused on federal funding programs, Poppendeick’s lecture included evidence that states can also play an important role. She gave recent case studies of universal free programs in both Vermont and West Virginia, and also discussed the effects of recent legislation, such as the Community Eligibility Option under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act.
Balanced salad from Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District
Poppendieck also emphasized the importance of integrating the lunch hour into the school day as a way to promote better health and a place to learn social skills and etiquette. “The cafeteria is our largest classroom,” Poppendieck said, quoting an educator from Vermont. Chapter 8 of Poppendeick’s book also gives several inspiring examples of schools that are using the lunch hour as a learning tool and a jumping off point for hands on education.
Oatmeal sundae bar in Provo
Whether or not you think that universal free is the right direction to go (I’m still on the fence about the whole funding issue), I highly recommend Janet Poppendieck’s book. It is a great summary of all of the factors affecting the school lunch program today, and gives an excellent history of how it came to be for those that are interested but don’t have much experience with the program. After being fortunate to converse with Poppendieck both before and after the lecture (and get my book signed!), I am now interested in reading her other two books: Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement and Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.
To learn more about the challenges facing the lunch program, as well as the progress that has been made, see my previous post about school lunch.