Brief Reviews, Uncategorized, VOLUME 3

Review: FREE FOR ALL – Janet Poppendiek [Vol. 3, #14]

A Review of

Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.
Janet Poppendieck.
Hardback: Univ of California Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Shaun C. Brown.

In Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, Janet Poppendieck, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York, gives an in-depth look at school breakfast and lunch programs in America.  In the book, a part of the California Studies in Food and Culture Series, Poppendieck uses various sources of information, such as her experience volunteering in a school cafeteria, studies on the history of school food in America, interviews with school administrators and her students on their experience eating school cafeteria food, local and national government reports, and studies by nutritionists and anti-hunger advocates.  Poppendieck argues school food reform can help address rising hunger, child health, and environmental issues.

Poppendieck notes that the nutrition standards of breakfasts and lunches under the National School Lunch Programs (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) are federally regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (“competitive foods,” however, such as those in snack machines and a la carte lines are not regulated).  She notes, however, “The most common critique [of school lunch menus], however, is dissatisfaction with the nutritional profile of the meals served” (85).  The nutrition regulations are quite questionable.  For example, a piece of pizza or a hamburger, order of fries, fruit, and milk is permissible under the regulations (with the fries counting as the vegetable), but stir-fried vegetables with fruit and milk would not be permissible.

Numerous school administrators Poppendieck talked with argued they did not offer healthier options for their students because the students would not eat the healthier food.  Poppendieck, however, sees schools as “the place to influence children’s eating habits” (12).  She argues this is done not only by creating better eating habits in school cafeterias, but also by education in the classrooms, which includes showing “kids that food doesn’t come from the grocery store” (234).

To combat low nutrition standards, Poppendieck advocates tougher nutrition standards, organic foods, more plant based foods, and programs which connect schools with local planters, often called “farm to school.”  Due to low nutrition standards, many students refuse to eat school food, which they consider to be “nasty” and “junk” (139–143).  Vegetarians and vegans are particularly critical of school food due to their lack of options.

NSLP and SBP have a three tier system, in which students can eat breakfast lunch for free, at a reduced price, and at “full” price.  All school meals, including “full” price, are federally subsidized.  While the motivation of the free and reduced priced lunches is to help low income families and those who receive free and reduced lunch are supposed to be confidential, Poppendieck argues convincingly that in high schools a stigma is attached to those who receive freed and reduced lunch.  Some students eligible for free and reduced lunch do not participate due to the stigma.  Others refuse not to eat the regular school lunch at full price calling it “welfare food” (194).  The presence of competitive foods in cafeterias add to the stigma, as more affluent students eat competitive foods while those receiving free and reduced lunch have eat in the regular line.  While technology, such as school lunch cards which students scan, aid in removing the stigma

Poppendieck concludes by arguing America needs a federally run nutrition program for all students as an integral part of the school day (using countries like Sweden as a model), rather than a business that interrupts the school day.  While many have concerns that such a program would add to America’s deficit, Poppendieck argues such a program would invest in the health of students.  This includes the removal of competitive foods from school cafeterias.  She estimates, based on Congressional Budget Office figures that a universal school breakfast and lunch program would cost an additional $12 billion annually.  She notes, “The ‘bailout’ funded in response to the banking crisis would have been enough to pay for a conversion to universal free school meals for more than half a century” (289).  Money could, however, also be saved in other areas, such as no longer needing families to fill out forms and have school workers spend time verifying family incomes.  For this program to become a reality, school participation in NSLP and SBP must expand to include all public schools.  She believes this expansion would help in making school food more socially acceptable.

As a youth minister with a wife who is an educator, this book has a lot to offer to churches, even to Christians who disagree with her public policy proposals.  While Poppendieck at no point discusses faith or the role of the church, the work gives the church a few important reminders.  First, Poppendieck informs the church of the politics of the lunchroom—the way that some students are shunned because of their socio-economic status (which, as she points out throughout the book, is often intertwined with issues of race).  This information can help youth workers in churches encourage students to break down these barriers and reach out to those who carry the stigma of “free and reduced lunch.”  Second, the Free for All reminds Christians, especially those who live in affluent areas, of the poverty that exists in the US.  While school lunches, especially at reduced prices, seem relatively low to many, there are students whose would not eat if they did not receive free breakfast and lunch and other families cannot even afford to pay for reduced lunch.  Third, Poppendieck raises important questions about the nutrition of school food and the food that families feed their children.  Interested readers should also view the Academy Award nominated documentary Food, Inc., which looks at the American food industry.

Poppendieck’s book is extremely detailed, including 35 pages of endnotes and a sizeable bibliography.  While the book is at times tedious reading, Poppendieck writes at an accessible level.  I would recommend the book to all public school teachers, church youth workers, and those interested in nutrition and support of local food.


Shaun C. Brown is Associate Minister of Youth at Central Holston Christian Church in Bristol, TN, where he lives with his wife Cassandra, cat Tonks, and beta fish Frodo.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

Reading for the Common Good
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