Monday, January 25, 2010

Janet Poppendieck's "Free for All"

Janet Poppendieck is Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York. She is the author of Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement and Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, and reported the following:
I had never heard of the “Page 99 Test” before I received an e-mail inviting me to comment on its application to my new book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America. My first association was the practice reportedly used for naming children in parts of the rural South. Open the Bible, stab your finger on the page, and the first gender-appropriate name you come to—that will be the child’s appellation for life. OK if you land on Elijah, but not so great if you strike Beelzebub. I turned to page 99 with some trepidation.

I found myself in the middle of a discussion of the preponderance of highly processed, pre-packaged food among school lunch entrees, part of a chapter dedicated to deconstructing the menu. A former President of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the professional organization of food service workers, was explaining to me why I had seen so many corn dogs and burritos and other hand-held items in the schools I had visited; “That’s the way kids eat now…That’s the way families eat. Not sitting down with a knife and fork.” It could have been worse. At least it’s a page that captures the voices of some of the school food service personnel that I interviewed, a primary source of “data” for this book. Food service workers, and especially food service directors, were a crucial component of the process by which I tried to educate myself about the day-to-day realities of the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs that serve some seven billion meals to America’s school children every year. The challenges these workers face are enormous and really, really interesting. I’m glad they were represented on Page 99.

Day-to-day realities, however, were not my only concern. I was trying to get a grip on public policy—on the history that has shaped these programs, and the politics and policies that constrain them. I was glad to find, therefore, that page 99 at least mentions policy, though not the school lunch and breakfast programs per se. In fact, the critique of the role of federal commodity subsidies in shaping the larger food system that begins on page 99 is a fundamental point of the book: “the growing reliance on highly processed food is not some sort of inevitable, inexorable process driven by forces of nature. In many ways, it is an outcome of public policy. The farm subsidies created during the New Deal and revised after World War II favored seven basic commodities. Among those are corn and soybeans, two ingredients essential to the kinds of long-lived processed goods that fill our grocery shelves.” The passage goes on to explain that by making corn and soy exceptionally cheap, crop subsidies have induced agribusiness to invest in the technologies for producing long shelf-life “food like substances,” affecting the taste preferences of consumers and thus the foods that schools choose to serve.

Of course, one page cannot substitute for an entire book. Page 99 focuses on food quality issues while the book as a whole is at least as concerned with issues of access. It analyzes the stigmatizing means test that creates an administrative nightmare for program operators and deters some hungry children from eating the meals prepared for them, and it argues for universal free meals, integrated with the school day, as a solution to both the access and quality problems. I wrote this book in the hope of empowering reformers and mobilizing support for the change we need. Hopefully, you’ll care enough to read more than just page 99. What could be more important than the way we feed our children?
Learn more about Free for All at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue