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School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program

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5 Stars

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Summary & Review of Book

Whether kids love or hate the food served there, the American school lunchroom is the stage for one of the most popular yet flawed social welfare programs in our nation's history. School Lunch Politics covers this complex and fascinating part of American culture, from its origins in early twentieth-century nutrition science, through the establishment of the National School Lunch Program in 1946, to the transformation of school meals into a poverty program during the 1970s and 1980s. Susan Levine investigates the politics and culture of food; most specifically, who decides what American children should be eating, what policies develop from those decisions, and how these policies might be better implemented.

Even now, the school lunch program remains problematic, a juggling act between modern beliefs about food, nutrition science, and public welfare. Levine points to the program menus' dependence on agricultural surplus commodities more than on children's nutritional needs, and she discusses the political policy barriers that have limited the number of children receiving meals and which children were served. But she also shows why the school lunch program has outlasted almost every other twentieth-century federal welfare initiative. In the midst of privatization, federal budget cuts, and suspect nutritional guidelines where even ketchup might be categorized as a vegetable, the program remains popular and feeds children who would otherwise go hungry.

As politicians and the media talk about a national obesity epidemic, School Lunch Politics is a timely arrival to the food policy debates shaping American health, welfare, and equality.

Susan Levine is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Labor's True Woman and Degrees of Equality.  Professor Levine spoke to the American Nutrition Association on September 23rd, 2010.


"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."--Eliza Krigman, The Nation

"[T]his book is an admirable history of the political landscape of school lunch, setting the stage for future scholarship on this rich and intriguing topic. . . . Levine's book is a fine study of the history of school lunch vis-a-vis welfare programs and politics."--Amy Bentley, American Historical Review

"[Susan Levine] traces the [school lunch] program back to the Progressive Era, when localized charities distributed school lunches as a way to counteract malnutrition. But over the course of the program's lifetime, the interests of the agricultural and commercial food industries have largely superseded those of students. Levine provides an in-depth look at how such factors as early nutritionists' disdain for Italian cooking have led to the ubiquitous greasy pizza of today's school cafeteria."--Education Week

"Levine chronicles the history of what she describes as the most popular--yet flawed and poorly understood--social welfare program in the US: The National School Lunch Program. . . . While studies in the politics of food have become popular in the last decade, as have studies of welfare, Levine's work stands out for linking these two areas of inquiry."--M. J. Garrison, Choice

"Levine has succeeded in writing the rare policy history that is also a page turner. Her engaging and at times witty prose tells a story of food science, agricultural surplus, gender, race, and the welfare state. She puts a human face on the policy makers in this story, if not the recipients of free lunches."--Meghan K. Winchell, Reviews in American History

Categories (check all that apply)

Diets / Dieting
Healthcare Policy and Politics