Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Susan Levine's "School Lunch Politics"

Susan Levine is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Labor’s True Woman: Carpet Weavers, Industrialization, Labor Reform in the Gilded Age (Temple University Press, 1984) and Degrees of Equality: The American Association of University Women and the Challenge of Twentieth Century Feminism (Temple University Press, 1995).

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America's Favorite Welfare Program, and reported the following:
Page 99 nicely captures the heart of my argument in School Lunch Politics. The chart at the top of the page illustrates the fact that historically, public resources, whether local, state, or federal, only partially covered the cost of children’s meals and, more significantly, never covered the cost of free lunches for poor children. In this regard, I argue on p. 99, that “school lunch funding structures perpetuated America’s regional and racial inequalities. In order to encourage local buy-in for the school lunch program, congressional appropriations covered only a small fraction of the cost of children’s lunches…. Most states, rather than raise local taxes, decided to charge children a small amount for lunch and count those fees as their part of the match. Thus, until the early 1960s, the National School Lunch Program's financial base rested on families who were able to pay the cost of subsidized meals for their children.” The embarrassing truth was that, until the early 1970s, very few poor children in America had access to free school meals.

School Lunch Politics
traces the history of one of America’s most popular yet flawed social welfare programs 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 in to a major poverty program during the 1970s. School Lunch Politics may surprise readers who assume that the School Lunch program was a liberal legacy of the New Deal. In fact, champions of publicly subsidized school meals ranged from the staunch segregationist senator from Georgia, Richard Russell to Republican President, Richard Nixon, who was responsible for dramatically expanding free lunches to poor children. Also surprising may be the fact that some liberal activists advocated public/private partnerships in school lunchrooms in order to subsidize free meals. Today the National School Lunch Program is the single most important source of nutrition for children from low-income families. Almost 60 percent of all school children nationwide get free school lunches each day. School Lunch Politics argues that fixing the school lunch program is not simply a matter of getting kids to eat healthy food. It is also, a matter of political choices and social justice.
Read the introduction and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

Visit Susan Levine's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue