Dr. Janet Poppendieck is an expert on school food. She is a sociologist, professor at Hunter College and author of a new book called Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press, 2010).
I've met Dr. Poppendieck on several occasions, and her passion, expertise and overall immersion in the problems associated with school food are impressive. This is the first of a two-part interview.
Diet Detective: So, how did you become interested in school food?
Janet Poppendieck: In the early 1970s, I took time off from dissertation research to serve as interim director of something called the National School Breakfast Campaign. It was a project of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), and although I only spent about six months doing it, I learned several things that stayed with me. The first was the importance of school meals to the health of low-income children and the economic survival of their families.
The second was that the structure of the program, the complicated three-tier eligibility requirements for free, reduced-price and full-price meals, was a major headache for school administrators and a source of shame for children.
And the third was that advocacy can make an enormous difference in the performance of programs like school food. I kept all these things on the back burner over the years while I worked on other aspects of hunger and food policy.
Then, when childhood obesity began making headlines, I decided it was time to take a closer look at school food. I wrote Free For All in the hope that the renewed interest in children's diets might provide an impetus for much needed change in our school meal programs.
Diet Detective: Why is school food so critical to our children's welfare and yet so controversial?
Janet Poppendieck: It is critical because there are millions of children in the United States who depend on school food as their primary food source. In far too many households, there are not balanced meals, not real meals at all. Parents are working multiple jobs, or they lack cooking skills, or they are incapacitated, or they just don't have enough money. So poverty makes school food critical for some children, but I don't want to give the impression that school food is important only for poor children.
All children learn better if they eat healthily, and in our society affluence is no guard against poor eating habits. We are surrounded by foods designed to appeal to our cravings for fat, salt and sugar, but lacking in essential nutrients. These foods are heavily advertised to children. The packaged-goods and fast-food industries spend literally billions of dollars each year on marketing food to children, so all our children, rich and poor and everybody in between, need an opportunity to learn what constitutes a healthy diet and to develop a taste for fresh, healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables.
And this is where the controversy comes in. In too many schools, the meals in the cafeterias are NOT models of healthy eating. In the early 1980s, Congress sharply reduced the subsidy for school food. One result was that the quality of the offerings declined, and many paying children dropped out of the program, leaving school food-service operations with fewer customers and smaller federal contributions.
As a means of cutting labor costs, many schools moved to bulk convenience foods ? defrost and reheat ? with heavy reliance on canned fruits and vegetables, which are the easiest to store. At the same time, in an effort to regain their child customers, many began offering fast-food clones and selling youngsters' (heavily advertised) favorite foods a la carte.