School lunch programs have been around for decades. Originally conceived as a program to distribute excess agricultural items, prop up food prices, and help young people from poor families get some midday nourishment, the school lunch program has expanded and modified itself over the years, but it still going strong. Its history is the subject of this book, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program, a book written by Susan Levine.
A New Program is Created
School Lunch Politics is about the history of the National School Lunch Program in the United States and how it has grown and changed over the years to become the generally accepted program that it is today. The program is one of the very few welfare- style programs in Washington that has expanded and thrived with very few attempts to cut it back and with general support from all political sides.
School Lunch Politics reveals some very interesting facts about school lunch and how the program has been modified over the decades. The book shares many educational tidbits of which most may not be aware, like the fact that subsidized school lunches originally were used as a means to dispose of excess agricultural goods, keep supplies under control, prop up prices, and better ensure that young men were well- nourished enough to make them fit for military service, if the need arose. In the early days of the program, farmers would take excess crops and present them to the schools for serving to kids and because of this process, the lunches were not very consistent. It wasn’t until later that nutrition standards came into play and that foods were selected in a way that more accurately reflected the nutritional needs of the human body.
The Department of Agriculture administers the School Lunch Program today, but how many are aware that it was once partly influenced by a now defunct federal department known as the Bureau of Home Economics? I never knew such a group existed until I read this book and discovered its influence on food and education. I also did not realize that the program was once left to the individual states to administer and because of this, the distribution of free or reduced price lunches was often subject to the prejudices and racist tendencies of certain parts of the country. The program did not become more uniform until later years.
Just the Facts, Please
School Lunch Politics is mostly one long factual presentation and readers will generally appreciate that the book sticks to the facts and doesn’t offer opinions one way or the other. As the author Susan Levine says, the school lunch program is one of a very small number of government programs that has managed to maintain support across party lines and most everyone in Washington generally supports it. Even those politicians notorious for wanting to reduce the amount of government spending at every turn do not usually suggest touching the school lunch program. There are several good reasons for this, but the bottom line is backlash. No one wants to be labeled as the person in Congress who “took food away from hungry children” and so most all politicians leave this program alone. The folks in Washington still have their disagreements on how best to administer the program but few, if any, have ever suggested actually dismantling the National School Lunch program completely.
As I said, this is a fact- based book and it is written in a very academic manner. In many ways, it is like reading a long research paper. There are no attempts by the author to be witty, use metaphors, or otherwise resort to the tools of creative non- fiction. No, this book is about as dry as dry can be and it may not appeal to some readers for that reason alone. I found the “just the facts” writing acceptable because it is good for academic and educational purposes. However, I did find a few things about the writing that were not up to speed. One is the book’s epilogue- it is really a chapter and should be made into a chapter, as the book just sort of trails off at the end of the final chapter without bringing the subject matter to an official close. Another is the author’s repeated use of words, like “indeed.” She has a habit of starting sentences with this word, and it shows up a little more frequently than I would prefer.
Education is Key:
School lunches have come a long way since they were first introduced in the early days of the twentieth century. The program has gone from one that was used to distribute excess goods to a more poverty- centered program to help the poor to the more open, free market, fast- food operative that it has become today in many schools. The history is told nicely in School Lunch politics and while the book could actually use a few more chapters to cover the 1990’s to present- day era and could use a little more engaging style, it is still a very good work of educational non- fiction on this often forgotten subject. It’s a good book to read as we celebrate National School Lunch Week, educate ourselves on school food, and examine the pros and cons of the National School Lunch Program.
Copyright 2014, Bryan Carey