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Free For All

(article, Janet Poppendieck)

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h3. From the Conclusion

The idea that feeding children, and thus paying for their food at school, is a parental rather than a societal responsibility runs very deep. As Alice Boughton said nearly a century ago, many people see free school meals as "a regrettable necessity . . .  of providing food for . . . children whose parents are too poor or too ignorant to do it for them." 

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h1. About the book and author

Janet Poppendieck is a professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York. She has studied hunger issues for more than two decades.

Free For All is a comprehensive look at the history of the federally funded school-lunch program, its problems, and the recent movement to reform it. 

Reprinted with permission from the University of California Press (2010).

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In this frame of mind, receipt of free meals at school is a sign of parental failure. But that is not the only way to look at it; another paradigm suggests that children are required by society to attend school, and since they are there during mealtime and need food in order to learn, food should be a part of the school day.

The old pattern of "neighborhood schools," from which children walked home for lunch, has been obsolete for a long while. In most households, there is no adult at home to feed them, and many schools do not allocate adequate time to permit such a round trip. 

Schools are not the only institutions that have adopted a more instrumental approach to meal service along with modernization. Americans who visit hospitals in less-developed nations are sometimes surprised to learn that families are responsible for bringing in food to supply the patient. The first large-scale charitable feeding program in New York City, the Municipal Soup House, was established by the Society for the Relief of Distressed Debtors to provide meals for the inmates of the debtors' prison, who were similarly reliant on families, friends, or benefactors to feed them. 

Now we take prison meals and hospital meals for granted, but where children are involved, a lingering notion says this is a family responsibility. "Brown-bagging" is of course an option for preserving family responsibility, but the reality is that relatively few children bring a lunch packed at home — only about 10 percent, in the most recent SNDA survey. And many of the brown bags making their way to lunch contain what the child purchased from the corner store on the way to school, sometimes with the lunch money his parents thought would be spent on a healthy school meal.

Nevertheless, a universal free program means finding the resources to feed many children whose parents can certainly afford to do so without help, and that is an ideological as well as a financial barrier. 

When I interviewed Marianne Dania, she was the director of child nutrition for the Stockton Unified School District in California. She was willing to try just about anything she could do to reduce the stigma that sent too many of her students to what she calls "the roach coach," the wagon selling food outside the school door. When I asked her about a completely universal program, however, she couldn't imagine it. 

[%image feature-image float=right width=400 caption="What does your kid eat for school lunch?"]

"You can't do it," she told me. "My girlfriend is a director in Marin County, and those kids drive BMWs to school. They buy burritos for $5."

When I explained what I meant — a program similar to Sweden's, where no money changes hands at all, where school meals are part of the budget, financed by a combination of national and local funds — she became more enthusiastic, but I think her first reaction will be the first reaction of many. The idea of paying for meals for "rich kids" bothers people.

The last time that legislation embodying a universal approach was introduced in Congress, some advocates, justifiably concerned about competing with other programs that serve impoverished Americans, characterized the proposal as one that would take scarce resources away from programs that support poor families and use them to aid those with incomes averaging above the median — a transfer of benefits from the poor to the middle class. And under the current rules governing the federal budgeting process, this could be the case.

This is part of the reason that I am recommending a thorough reconsideration of school food, rather than a piecemeal or incremental effort. I believe that we need to make school food a regular part of the school day and take it out of the antipoverty category altogether. But I believe that in so doing, we must protect, and indeed make more effective, the poor child's entitlement to food. We need to move school food to a budget category where it does not compete with adequate funding for WIC or SNAP.

It is important to realize, however, that the great majority of the parents who would be helped financially by the advent of universal free school meals are not "rich." Rising health-care and health-insurance costs, mounting energy prices, rising college-tuition costs and the need to save for future college expenses, and more recently, the disruption of the housing market and rising food prices have put many "middle income" families in a bind, as economists and social scientists have been telling us. . . . Income volatility and the erosion of social insurance and employer-provided benefits like health care and pensions have left millions of middle-income Americans far less secure than their parents. 

As Jacob Hacker argues in The Great Risk Shift: "Economic insecurity isn't just a problem of the poor and uneducated, as most of us assume. Increasingly, it affects . . . educated, upper-middle-class Americans — men and women who thought that by staying in school, by buying a home, by investing in their 401(k)s, they had bought the ticket to upward mobility and economic stability. Insecurity today reaches across the income spectrum, across the racial divide, across lines of geography and gender. It speaks to the common 'us' rather than to the insular, marginalized 'them.'"


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