By Bethy Whalen
Janet Poppendieck opened her dynamic lecture on universal free school meals last Tuesday, April 2, by telling her audience that the total number of meals provided by school breakfast and lunch programs in America tops 7.5 billion every year. As it stands now, the cost of these meals is stratified and falls into one of three categories: free, reduced price, or full price. Poppendieck’s ultimate goal would be the establishment of universal free school meals, available to all, that integrates food into children’s school day curriculum and coursework. As a student in public elementary school in the early 90s, I began to think back to my elementary days – did I remember what the food was like? Did I know who had free or reduced price meals? As kids, would anyone know the difference?
Poppendieck didn’t discuss what was on the lunch tray as much as she talked about the function of the school meal within the school day. The talk outlined the themes from Poppendieck’s most recent book, Free For All, and focused on how we could reorient the policies and programs we currently have to create a different attitude around lunch period in schools. Using a mnemonic device of her creation (“The Seven Deadly In-s”), Poppendieck outlined the many reasons why the tiered school food payment/ reimbursement policies are not working. For example, the “in-dignity” of having free or reduced lunch, the “in-accuracy” of the current system, and the “in-efficiency” of using staff time to ensure the reams of paperwork are filled out correctly. Perhaps the most important point here is that financial means testing for families is out-of-place in public educational settings and interferes with students ability to learn and develop.
Poppendieck described the school cafeteria and kitchen as an intersection. “A place where concerns about poverty, hunger, and health intersect concerns about education and student development, and concerns about the environment, sustainability of our food system, and the economy.” By serving food instead of selling it, universal free lunch program could promote a better diet, food education, and health awareness among kids. Poppendieck gave one example of a Social Studies class that worked with the school kitchen to serve a variety of grains (wheat, rice, teff, quinoa) from different regions of the world as part of their school project. Curriculum like these that integrate foods in the cafeteria with lessons in the classroom could make eating school lunch a more purposeful part of the day and connect food with the broader learning experience.
At the end of the lecture, there was an extensive Q & A, illustrating the interest and connection that many in the audience had with school lunch programs. Poppendieck was frank about the challenges faced by dining directors who must satisfy the appetites of children, achieve nutrition guidelines, negotiate with vendors, and maintain budgets. Even still she insisted we can and should change the experience of eating at school from one that is necessary (but underappreciated), to one that is integral to each child learning experience. When facing the vastness of problems with our food system, diet, and health today, Janet Poppendieck may not have all the answers, but she’s got some pretty good ideas on where to start.
Bethy Whalen is a first year gastronomy student with a strong interest is food policy and national school lunch reform.