Midday Malaise

Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California Studies in Food and Culture) BY Janet Poppendieck. University of California Press. Hardcover, 368 pages. $27.

The cover of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (California Studies in Food and Culture)

When I was an elementary and junior-high school student in Arizona in the 1970s, the school lunch calendar was always a harbinger of fun meals to come: made-from-scratch Salisbury steak, baked chicken, spaghetti with meatballs, or tamale pie ladled out by smiling lunch ladies in hairnets and washed down with little cartons of fresh-tasting, ice-cold whole milk. We all got a lot of exercise back then; I was always hungry. I ate everything on my tray, even the peas, carrots, corn, or (God forbid) brussels sprouts, and I passionately loved the fresh-baked rolls and brownies, the Mississippi mud cake. The smell of my long-ago school cafeteria comes back to me with a sense of nostalgic childhood pleasure: It was the smell of balanced meals made with wholesome ingredients by cooks who knew what they were doing. I handed my pink free-lunch ticket over in blissful ignorance of any stigma: Almost all of us in my school were dirt-poor, Mexicans, whites, and American Indians alike.

This happy scenario took place thirty-five or more years ago. Not having had kids myself, I had no idea how severely and depressingly things had changed in public school cafeterias until I read Janet Poppendieck’s meticulously researched, patiently explicated, potentially groundbreaking book Free for All. Something has gone seriously awry, or rather, many things have, and Poppendieck takes her reader along a brisk, matter-of-fact trajectory from the rosy dawn of school lunch in the early 1960s through the increasingly labyrinthine bureaucracy, itself fed on lavish corporate subsidies, that now controls school cafeterias. Meal planners are hamstrung by nutritional standards that make little sense and result in cockamamie, unhealthy, monochromatic meals like chicken nuggets, Tater Tots, and a roll. The three-tiered system of free, reduced-price, and full-price lunches ostensibly provides for needy kids but in fact intimidates and confuses parents with endless forms to fill out and fosters a sense of shame in eligible kids, who opt to go hungry rather than expose their poverty to their peers. The program therefore often fails to reach the very kids it was designed for.

There is also a prevalent food-court-like arena of corporate à la carte food that competes with federally mandated hot lunches. This generally results in both segregating poor (usually black) kids and allowing better-heeled (usually white) kids to have only nachos and sodas for lunch. And the hot meals themselves are most often made in distant kitchens from subpar ingredients, frozen and shipped, then defrosted and (often only partially) heated. (The descriptions of these are gag worthy and viscerally, effectively disgusting, especially Poppendieck’s evocation of moldy, gray, somewhat frozen, pre-made hamburger patties on soggy buns.)

Free for All picks up the threads of the crucial question Michael Pollan posed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: What to do about the problem of food in America? Pollan came up with some brilliantly commonsensical answers, most famously the dictum “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He attempted to address the nation’s harsh class inequities by suggesting that ecologically conscious and enlightened nutritional habits—such as buying locally from small organic farms, forgoing processed foods entirely, and choosing a plant-heavy diet—if adopted by those who can afford them, would trickle down to the poor as sustainable agriculture became more prevalent and corporate control of supermarket shelves weakened. Still, I couldn’t help feeling he didn’t fully address the class issues surrounding food in this country.

With refreshing objectivity and straightforwardness, Poppendieck dives into that whole teeming, gnarly mess: poverty, race, class, childhood “diabesity,” hunger, bureaucratic roadblocks, and corporate greed. A professor of sociology at Hunter College, she has researched her topic with admirable thoroughness. There are interesting and often moving anecdotes throughout, but she is no zealot; her writing style has little of Pollan’s catchy, headlong passion. Her call to action is quiet and restrained: “We need a new paradigm for school meals,” she writes, “one that sees expenditures for school food as investments in the current and future health of our children. It is time to go 'back to the drawing board,’ to take a whole new look at the way we feed our children at school.” Because Poppendieck relies on the thoughtful synthesis of facts rather than rhetorical flash to make her points, Free for All can be a bit dry and academic, but it richly rewards a close and careful study and, in fact, should be required reading for everyone who eats food, buys food, has kids, or cares about nutrition.

The title Free for All is a double entendre, of course: It refers to both the problem and its solution. In the final fifty or so pages of her nearly four-hundred-page book, Poppendieck puts forth, modestly and without fanfare, a deceptively simple answer to all the problems she’s so painstakingly explicated: She suggests that there should be universal free breakfasts and lunches in every public school in America, for rich and poor kids alike, and that the food as much as possible be made from scratch with fresh, healthy ingredients. She proposes potential sources of funding for this system, arguing for proper channels of government control and exploring the economics and practical considerations of effective distribution.

It is a testament to how far we’ve come from the school lunches of my own childhood that this idea of universal free hot breakfast and lunch should sound so revolutionary, so bold, and at the same time so true and obvious. And in its patient, no-nonsense approach to the problem of feeding our kids, Free for All will, I hope, be a goad and a clarion call for an energetic horde of nutritional revolutionaries. Hats off to Poppendieck. Three cheers for free lunch.

Kate Christensen’s most recent novel is Trouble (Doubleday, 2009).