June 4, 2008
Morgan Spurlock drew attention to school lunch programs in his 2004 hit, Super Size Me, highlighting some of the questionable content of lunches served to students and the controversy surrounding the powerful grocery lobby today. In School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program, author Susan Levine provides a comprehensive examination of school lunches’ complex history from the birth of home economics and food as a nutritional science to the arrival of vending machines in cafeterias. The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) started out as a welfare program but instead became a boon to the agriculture and commercial food industries.
Perhaps modeled after Marion Nestle’s seminal Food Politics, Levine’s book neither endorses nor attacks the program, but instead concerns herself with providing an accurate account of all the factors that created and sustained the school lunch program. She leaves out recommendations for how to improve the system, but today’s school lunch program suffers from many of the same problems Levine describes through the history of its creation: insufficient funds, poor nutrition content and a limited ability to provide lunches to those most in need.
From its inception, The National School Lunch Program dealt with the competing interests of nutrition and child welfare advocates, U.S. agricultural priorities, and, later in its history, the commercial food industry. Levine’s book details how the school lunch program struggled to meet its stated goals, oftentimes reinforcing inequality and discrimination.
The idea for school lunches grew from a nutritional reform movement. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the science of food was largely aimed at livestock and agricultural productivity. But during the Progressive Era between 1880 and 1930, food nutrition for humans developed as part of the optimistic effort to bring efficiency, expertise, and rational organization to industry, agriculture, and the domestic sphere. With a new value and understanding of human nutrition, the economic depression of the 1930s gave way to the idea, and public support, for a national school lunch program.
Throughout the book, Levine shows how more often than not, concern for improved nutrition and children’s welfare lost out to agricultural priorities and business. The first legislated incarnation of the program—the 1946 National School Lunch Act—made lunchrooms an outlet for surplus agricultural commodities. Consequently, the goal of providing a balanced meal was largely dependent on what kind of agricultural products were in surplus on a given year. Lunchrooms could not plan on the type of food the federal government would send them and the ability to provide a nutritious lunch was seriously strained.