Newswise — A new book from a University of Illinois at Chicago scholar suggests that fixing lunch is not simply a matter of urging kids to eat healthy food.
"School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program" (Princeton University Press, 2008) by Susan Levine, UIC professor of history, explores the politics and culture of food surrounding one of America's most enduring social welfare programs -- the National School Lunch Program.
"The National School Lunch Program has outlasted almost every other 20th century federal welfare initiative and holds a uniquely prominent place in popular imagination," Levine said. "It suggests the central role food policy plays in shaping American health, welfare and equality."
The book traces the history of school lunch from its origins in 20th century nutrition science and reform, to its link with agricultural surpluses in the 1930s, through the establishment of a permanent federally funded program in 1946, to the transformation of school meals into a major poverty program in the 1970s and 1980s.
Levine maintains that school lunches, like many other aspects of American public policy, have been influenced by politics and power.
"The answers to questions of what foods children should eat, which children deserve a free lunch, and who should pay for school meals have bedeviled even the most well-intended of policy makers," Levine said. The program, since its inception, has been driven predominantly by the interests of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"During the Great Depression, New Deal policy-makers sought relief for poor children as well as for American farmers. Drawing on market-based strategies that favored commercial farm interests, Congress authorized the Department of Agriculture to buy surplus commodities and donate them to the nation's schools," she said.
"Historically, concerns about national agricultural policies and poverty policy have regularly competed with dietary issues in the creation of the school lunch program," added Levine, who said children's health and nutrition were often considered secondary priorities.
The program's largest expansion took place in the 1970s when its objective changed from agricultural welfare to welfare for poor children.
In her book, Levine illustrates efforts to serve more free meals, such as the Department of Agriculture easing restrictions banning commercial operations from school cafeterias.
"As poor children entered school lunchrooms in large numbers, so did processed meals and fast food companies," said Levine, noting how corporate food service industries gained greater influence on the program.
Approximately 30 million children in 98,000 schools eat school lunches every day in America, according to statistics cited by Levine. Nearly 60 percent of all school children nationwide qualify for free school lunches each day.
"The National School Lunch program, for all its nutritional flaws, provides a crucial public welfare support for our nation's youth," she said.
In "School Lunch Politics," Levine reflects on the negative response to the Reagan administration's attempt to modify nutrition requirements by counting ketchup as a vegetable. She says the outcry is an example of the American public's long-lasting commitment to the school lunch program.
In recent years, celebrity chefs and private foundations have backed programs to improve school meals as a response to contemporary concerns about lunch menus and a national obesity epidemic.
"The celebrity chefs now working in school lunchrooms are finding, as generations of nutritionists and food reformers before them did, that there is more to a national school lunch program than a nutritious menu," Levine said. "To truly fix lunch, reformers will need to build a political coalition committed to an agenda that links child nutrition to agriculture, food policy, and social welfare."