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How fast food became the school lunch

'Free for All' book cover

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Michelle Obama said something interesting today. The First Lady emphasized that her campaign against childhood obesity isn't so much about how the kids look, it's whether they're getting enough good fuel for their bodies to be productive in school. Most kids get at least one meal a day actually at school. Sociologist Janet Poppendieck spent some time trying to make sense of those meals, how and why they're served and prepared the way they are. Her new book about school nutrition programs is called "Free for All." Janet, welcome to the program.

Janet Poppendieck: Glad to be here.

Ryssdal: Whatever happened to school food in this country? I mean when I was a kid and when you were a kid there was an actual lady in the lunchroom, making lunches, serving it hot. It just doesn't happen that way anymore.

Poppendieck: It started with the notorious Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981. When the Reagan administration cut the subsidy for school meals by about a third. That was the subsidy that kept the price low for the paying children, the so-called full price meals. It drove a lot of the paying youngsters out of the program. And that began to shift the image of the program toward being more a program for poor people.

Ryssdal: Did that bring stigma with it too?

Poppendieck: I would say it upped the stigma. It intensified the stigma. Kids sometimes refer to it as welfare food or county food. And as they grow older they don't want to be seen eating it. Back to the financing issue because I think it's really the key to understanding the answer to your question -- what's happened to school food. In the early 80s then school food service directors found themselves confronted with a shrinking customer base. And they did what any business will do. They tried to find ways to produce the lunches more cheaply, and at the same time they tried to find ways to market the foods to get those paying customers back into the cafeteria.

Ryssdal: So how did they go about doing that? I mean, did they sit down and have a marketing meeting some place?

Poppendieck: Basically what they began to do, is they began to sell items a la carte that they knew students wanted to buy. So chips and nuggets and nachos and what have you became available in many, many schools, which kind of undermined the nutritional integrity of the program but did generate revenues that subsidized the official meal.

Ryssdal: It is, as we've mentioned, an enormous market, and companies that provide food to these 14,000 school districts across the country have an enormous incentive to get their products out there. Has the program been, corrupted is kind of a strong word, but has it been bent a little bit by the influence of business?

Poppendieck: Well, I think it's been bent by the efforts of school districts to comply with the nutrition standards. You know, it's kind of the letter of the law more than the spirit of the law. The spirit of the nutrition standards was, you know, we want to use this public investment to serve our children healthy meals. But the letter sometimes ends up with school districts purchasing products that have what's called a CN label, a child nutrition label, which certifies that they meet particular components of the menu planning standards. If they buy Smucker's uncrustable sandwiches, they know that the ounces have been measured, and it's going to meet school meal nutrition regulations. And if the state regulator comes in and finds out that it's short half an ounce of peanut butter, why then it's Smucker's that will be liable. And I think that interaction has resulted in products that probably neither you nor I would buy for our own family.

Ryssdal: Janet Poppendieck is a professor of sociology at Hunter College at the City University of New York. Her book about school lunches in America is called "Free For All." Janet, thanks a lot.

Poppendieck: Thanks for having me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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