Book review: 'Free for All' by Janet Poppendieck

Sunday, January 31, 2010


Fixing School Food in America

By Janet Poppendieck. Univ. of California. 353 pp. $27.50

School lunches don't exactly have a great reputation. The daily smorgasbord of pizza, Tater Tots, soda and other fattening fare has come under fire as obesity continues to be a national health crisis. In "Free for All," sociology professor Janet Poppendieck explains how nutrition-deficient meals came to dominate America's school cafeterias and outlines a slew of problems in the national school lunch and breakfast programs.

Poppendieck identifies shortcomings at virtually every layer of the system, from inefficient government-mandated paperwork to school kitchens ill-equipped to do anything beyond defrost frozen meals. Outside the bureaucracy, there are other obstacles to healthy eating: Kids gravitate toward seductive but unhealthy items such as cookies or chips even when more nutritious items are available. Poppendieck is particularly critical of the programs' pricing system, which allows some students to get free or reduced-price meals based on their parents' low incomes, but singles them out in the process. "The biggest problem is the stigma that comes from being different," she writes, "from being marked as poor, from being unable to pay in a culture that places excessive value on being able to pay and a school food subculture that increasingly views children as 'customers.' "

To that end, she argues convincingly that lunches should be free for all students, a measure that would remove shame from the equation for those who need the program while cutting costs associated with determining who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals. By illuminating how Congress, big agriculture, local school boards and even parents affect what shows up in the cafeteria, this well researched book makes a strong case for retooling school lunch menus nationwide.

-- Sarah Halzack

© 2010 The Washington Post Company