How fast food became the school lunch

'Free for All' book cover


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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The way we feed our children reflects our values. We prioritize our efforts and our dollars to reflect what is important to us as a society. Plain and simple, we are getting what we are paying for. Cheap food is seldom good food. We need to put our money where it counts: into making wiser, long-term choices that will reflect the fact that our children are our future, and their health matters.

Have been watching Jamie Oliver's Fast Food Revolution and some of what goes on in schools is shocking - it's unbelievable how bad the situation has gotten as a result of cost cutting and narrow-mindedness. Our children are the future - and while our education system may be working - our health/food education is failing tragically. Hopefully with more awareness with publications/interviews like this we can affect real change.

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Perhaps one way to improve the school lunch menu is to require school boards, administrative personnel and school teachers to eat the same thing. Well, maybe not.

Our school district has attempted to improve the nutritional quality of the meals served, using wholewheat pizza crust and so on. The result: my kids won't eat it. They'd rather go hungry. (They are both below average weight anyway). I doubt whether a one-size-fits-all solution is possible. (And here's an interesting paradox - the cafeteria refused to serve water at lunchtimes, when I asked them, because "it did not meet state nutritional guidelines" - the kids could only have fruit punch or milk!)

I had lunch with my kindergarten child the other day. I was disgusted by what they serve. It's all absolute trash. They say kids are stuck in their diets by the age of 26. That's only a few years to change decades of corruption.

There is another option for school hot lunch service ware. Biodegradable/compostable: There is an entire industry emerging world wide to meet this need----and the price is coming down. Inconvenient truth: styrafoam is cheap. Additionally, many schools are composting and or gardening. The cornstarch based material can easy be comingiled with food scraps.

Reaganâ??s political agenda was to prove that â??government is the problem not the solutionâ??. It wasnâ??t difficult: he and congress just undermined the government programs they and the upper class disliked. Thatâ??s called a self-fulfilling policy. Best trick of all was that citizens blamed â??the governmentâ??, not the sociopaths they elected. No wonder heâ??s known as the Great Communicator. Perhaps many Russians harbored similar sentiments toward good old Uncle Joe Stalin who also showed how government could be used against citizens.

This interview couldn't have been played at a better time. Not just because of Michelle Obama's Lets Move campaign or that hopefully our federal legistlatures will revamp the school lunch program and funding this coming year. This was timely for me since it aired 30 minutes after I concluded day one of a the two day www.healthyschoolenvironment.org training for California educators and school food service employees. I really hope my participants were listening on their drive home. Great timing Marketplace!

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