School food

Authored by: Janet Poppendieck

Routledge International Handbook of Food Studies

Print publication date:  August  2012
Online publication date:  May  2013

Print ISBN: 9780415782647
eBook ISBN: 9780203819227
Adobe ISBN: 9781136741661




“School Food” covers the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program in the United States, along with other foods sold or consumed at school. A social constructionist framework looks at cycles in which claims become problems, generating action in the form of policies, which in turn become the basis for new claims and new problems. Basic themes include hunger among school children, the nutritional quality of school food, health outcomes, program access and participation, program integrity and payment accuracy, innovations, and the environmental and economic impact of school food.

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School food

In the United States, more than 31 million children eat federally subsidized, nutritionally regulated school lunches each school day; thus about three-fifths of the nation’s school-aged children participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Just over two-thirds of these meals are served free or at sharply reduced prices to children from low-income families. Families with incomes above the cut-off for reduced price meals (185 percent of the poverty line or currently $34,281 annually for a family of three) pay a price set locally. Most schools also offer a school breakfast program, and on a typical day in the most recent school year, some 11.3 million children participated in the School Breakfast Program (SBP), 83 percent of them on a free or reduced-price basis.

Most of the scholarship on school food in the US is concerned with these “official” school meals, but children eat other food at school as well, and in recent years, school food scholarship has come to embrace so-called “competitive foods”—foods sold in competition with the publicly subsidized meals such as foods dispensed by vending machines, sold in fundraisers or school stores, or sold à la carte in the cafeteria—and the foods that parents send to school in backpacks and lunch boxes, food brought from home.

Research on school food follows the classic cycle identified in the social constructionist literature on social problems. (See, for example, Blumer, 1971; Best, 2008; Spector and Kitsue, 1987.) First there are claims that a problem exists—that school children are going hungry, or that they are eating unsafe or unhealthy foods. Such claims are seldom uncontested, and researchers are drawn in, collecting data to support or disprove or measure the accuracy of the claims. If enough people are convinced that the problem is real and merits attention, demands for response accumulate and pass a crucial threshold; a problem achieves legitimacy. At this point, there are prescriptions and proposals for action. In school food, this phase has generated a substantial “how-to” literature—how to design a cafeteria, how to prepare nutritious, safe, and palatable meals, how to get children to eat them—and an extensive array of studies of innovations and pilot programs. Once a course of action is chosen and implemented, typically in the form of a policy or program, there are assessments and evaluations and the cycle begins again as the program’s shortcomings become the new “problem,” about which claims are made. In terms of public policy in the United States, such cycles take place at the local, state, and federal levels.

Historical background of scholarship on school food and major theoretical approaches

It is really impossible to disentangle the history of school food scholarship from the history of school feeding itself. The early development of school food in the US is intimately linked to the spread of compulsory public education. As new school attendance laws took effect, they brought into the schools many of the nation’s poorest children. With family income reduced by the loss of children’s wages, substantial numbers of families had little or no food to send to school with their offspring. Hunger in the classroom began attracting the attention of reformers. As Robert Hunter declared in his classic 1904 volume Poverty: “It is utter folly, from the point of view of learning, to have a compulsory school law which compels children, in that weak physical and mental state which results from poverty, to sit at their desks, day in and day out, for several years, learning little or nothing” (Hunter, 1904: 217). True to the constructionist model, Hunter’s allegations were followed by efforts to document the extent of child hunger, most notably John Spargo’s The Bitter Cry of the Children) published in 1906, and then a whole series of studies using income calculations and another series using height and weight measurements, leading to what Harvey Levenstein (2003: 109–20) has called “The Great Malnutrition Scare” of 1907–21. Both the Journal of Home Economics and more popular vehicles such as Parents Magazine regularly published studies of childhood malnutrition throughout the early 1910s and 1920s.

In keeping with the general American preference for private charity and the conviction that education was a local responsibility, the first responses to reports of child hunger were local and voluntary in nature. Women’s organizations, especially, undertook a wide variety of school food projects: Penny meals, free milk, even hot lunches. Once such programs were started, the initiating organizations often turned their attention to persuading local Boards of Education to take them over (Gunderson, 1971; Reese, 1980). They received considerable support in these efforts from another group of reformers known collectively as the School Hygiene Movement. Their concern was not so much hunger as food safety and nutrition; they were distressed by the unhealthy foods that students were purchasing from pushcarts and school janitors, and they proposed school lunchrooms under the supervision of a dietician as a way to instruct students in the fundamentals of healthy eating (Boughton, 1914, 1916; Levine, 2008). Some, following the example and urging of John Dewey (1899), saw a role for students themselves in the preparation and serving of school food that would teach them not only nutrition and food safety but also arithmetic, biology, geography, and many other elements of the curriculum. Together, the advocates of better sanitation and nutrition, the proponents of occupation-based education, and those concerned about the hunger of the poorest students achieved considerable success. By 1918, a study conducted by the Municipal Research Bureau in New York City, of school feeding operations in cities with populations of 50,000 or more, found that three-quarters offered meals in their high schools, though only a quarter did so in their elementary schools (Southworth and Klayman, 1941: 13).

Following the predictable lifecycle of the social problem, the social service and home economics publications of the day offered many descriptions of programs: The “how-to” literature mentioned earlier. Especially noteworthy were the papers prepared for the International Congresses on School Hygiene, some of which were reprinted in the Journal of Home Economics, and a remarkable chapter entitled “Household Arts and School Lunches” prepared for the Cleveland Survey (Boughton, 1916).

School lunch programs proliferated in the 1920s, and as they did so, they also became professionalized. More and more were under the direction of trained dieticians or home economics teachers. According to historian Susan Levine (2008: 34, 35) the Bureau of Home Economics in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the largest employer of women scientists in the nation, provided both an ongoing research base and substantial programmatic guidance for the rapidly professionalizing field of school food service. It took the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, to get the higher levels of government involved in providing material support to school food. As the suffering attendant upon unemployment became obvious, claims of widespread malnutrition among children surfaced once again, and again researchers undertook to investigate them. Meanwhile, more and more communities started school lunch programs or expanded those that already existed. Charitable contributions of money and food, and especially donations from teachers, helped to fund these, but as the Depression wore on, several states got involved, passing legislation authorizing local school boards to operate lunch rooms, and in a few cases, appropriating funds to assist (Southworth and Klayman, 1941). Consistent with the model above, “how to” documents and descriptive reports abounded in the social work, education, and home economics literature of the depression. The era saw the publication of two major works on child nutrition: Mary Bryan’s The School Cafeteria, which ran to 726 pages, and an update of Lydia Roberts Nutrition Work with Children, which weighed in at 639, were published in the mid-1930s.

Ironically, it was agricultural abundance, not food deprivation, that brought the federal government into the picture. Programs to control farm surpluses in order to stabilize prices left the USDA and its affiliated agencies with enormous supplies of both storable and perishable crops, and in the mid-1930s the USDA began donating surplus farm products to school lunch programs (Poppendieck, 1986). The newly organized Works Progress Administration (WPA), perceiving that school lunchrooms provided an ideal setting for work relief assignments for unemployed women, contributed labor, and the second half of the 1930s saw a major expansion of school food. True to the constructionist paradigm, with the “problem” variously defined as agricultural surpluses and female unemployment, new research assessed the impact of school lunch programs on surplus disposal and farm prices (Southworth and Klayman, 1941) and work relief opportunities for women (Woodward, 1936). The rules and regulations established to govern federal donations of food and labor laid the foundation for a permanent federal program forged in the wartime crucible of “defense nutrition.”

The Second World War focused the nation’s attention on nutrition as never before. As surpluses gave way to scarcity, the Federal Security Agency asked the National Research Council to establish nutrition standards that could serve as a basis for rationing (Roberts, 1958). The resulting RDAs became the basis for generations of studies assessing the diets of Americans, including those of school children, and food programs, including school meals. Meanwhile, widespread publicity for a public health service study linking failure of Selective Service physicals with malnutrition in childhood forged a clear link between adequate diet and national defense (Ciocco, Klein, and Palmer, 1941). With surpluses a receding memory, food prices rising, and the WPA facing termination, a new “problem” surfaced in school meals: without federal donations of food and labor, schools could not afford to continue their programs (Flanagan, 1969). Anticipating huge surpluses at the end of the war, agricultural economists seeking stable markets for farm products, and nutritionists seeking to improve American diets joined forces to persuade Congress to appropriate funds to reimburse schools for money spent on food. It was crucial, they argued, to keep the school lunch program operating so that it would be there to absorb the surpluses that would surely accumulate once European nations resumed agricultural production, and to make sure that the children of mothers working in war industries got a nutritious meal at school. By the end of the war, the elements of what became the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) were all in place: Cash indemnities and commodity donations to subsidize meals and keep the prices low, rules requiring schools to provide free meals for children too poor to pay for them, and federal regulations governing the nutrition profile of meals served with federal assistance. The National School Lunch Act was passed in 1946 “as a matter of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other foods” (Levine, 2008; Poppendieck, 2010).

The program grew and expanded, but generated little controversy, and little research, until the nation discovered poverty in the midst of plenty in the 1960s. When the civil rights movement and the war on poverty called attention to the needs of hungry school children, a new cycle of claims, research, proposals for action, and programmatic changes was launched. Responding to arguments that school lunch came too late in the day for the hungriest school children, a pilot school breakfast program was established in 1966. Shortly thereafter, a national coalition of women’s organizations, called the Committee on School Lunch Participation, undertook an extensive study that revealed major shortcomings in the National School Lunch Program. The Committee found that the previous generation’s solution had itself become the problem; the NSLP was not serving most of the nation’s poorest children—they were too poor to purchase the lunch even at the subsidized price, and their schools and communities did not have the resources to serve the meals without charge (Fairfax, 1968). The Committee’s findings, reinforced by the work of other high-profile investigations of hunger (Citizens Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the United States, 1968) resulted in a dramatic overhaul of the NSLP. New national standards specified which children were eligible for free meals, and the federal government undertook to reimburse local communities for meals served free in addition to continuing the general subsidy for all meals (Maney, 1989; Martin, 1999).

The renewed focus on hunger, and the success of the research and advocacy work of the ad hoc projects led to the establishment of a set of permanent anti-hunger organizations: The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Bread for the World, and World Hunger Year (now WhyHunger?) were all established in the 1970s with research, public education, and lobbying as core parts of their mission, giving rise to a national anti-hunger network that has grown in the ensuing decades (Eisinger, 1998).

One result of the school lunch reform legislation of the early 1970s was a dramatic rise in participation, and with it a steep escalation in costs. As program expenditures rose, so did Congressional interest, and in 1979, the Senate asked the USDA to conduct an evaluation of the School Lunch, School Breakfast, and Special Milk Programs. In research terms, this might be regarded as the dawn of the era of evaluation. The first major national assessment of the nutrient quality and impact of, and participation in, school meals began in October, 1979, and issued a final report in 1983 (Wellisch et al., 1983), producing data that were mined for school food research for a decade.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 signaled the start of a new era in domestic social programs with cutbacks in funding and increased demands for accountability. In the school lunch program, the Reagan-era cuts had dramatic impact. Faced with reductions in commodity donations and sharply curtailed subsidies for both reduced-price and full-price meals, local school food authorities raised prices abruptly, and participation by “full price” customers dropped precipitously. The NSLP lost a quarter of its full price customers in the several years after the cuts were implemented. The consequences were nutritional as well as fiscal. Food service directors across the nation tried to lure student customers back into the school cafeteria by offering more and more of youngsters’ favorite foods, expanding their à la carte offerings and installing vending machines in the cafeteria in an attempt to balance the budget (Martin, 1999; Poppendieck, 2010). The how-to literature again proliferated—this time focused on techniques for controlling costs and ways of attracting customers.

The expansion of à la carte with its emphasis on fries, pizza, burgers, and nuggets was soon reflected in the regular, subsidized meal as well, as schools sought cost savings by replacing expensive dishwashing systems with disposables and cutlery with hand-held foods. A glut of high-fat federal commodities fueled a conversion of the school food menu to fast food clones. In the ongoing cycle of problem identification, yesterday’s solution once again became today’s problem as the fat content of school meals elicited sharp criticism from an emerging group of health-oriented activists. In annual “report cards,” Public Voice for Food and Health Policy (1988–90) called attention to the high fat content of school meals and called on the USDA to bring its meals into compliance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that it helped to formulate (Sims, 1998). The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) convened a Citizens Committee reminiscent of the ad hoc organizations of the hunger exposés two decades earlier, and issued a white paper calling for limits on fat, sugar, and sodium in school meals. Health began to trump hunger in the national conversation about school food.

In the early 1990s, then Secretary of Agriculture Edwin Madigan launched the contemporary era of school food research by initiating the School Nutrition Dietary Assessment or SNDA, and asking the contractor, Mathematic Policy Research Inc., to measure school meals against the standards of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. When the results were in, the meals proved to be so far from the recommended standards that Congress passed a law requiring the meals to meet the guidelines, and the Department of Agriculture launched a major reform effort, the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children or SMI for short. SMI generated its own set of literature, both the “how-to” proposals and case studies (c.f. FNS et al., 2005) and a raft of program evaluations. Meanwhile, the SNDA series has become a recurrent phenomenon, and each of these studies has generated significant publications in such journals as Pediatrics and the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The rising concern about the health impacts of school food was fueled in the new millennium by the Surgeon General’s Call to Action on Childhood Obesity, and by the publication of several works aimed at popular audiences. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001) raised the alarm about the marketing of soft drinks and fast food through schools, while Morgan Spur-lock’s film Supersize Me provided a graphic portrayal of the use of branded items and fast food clones in school lunchrooms. Marion Nestle’s Food Politics (2002) investigated marketing food to children in greater depth. Both the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Alliance for Children took up the issue of food marketing to children through schools. Meanwhile, several high-profile incidents of food-borne illness and growing attention to food allergies expanded the health frame. Additional federal agencies joined the research effort, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with the School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) (2000) (Wechsler et al., 2001) and 2010, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) with two studies of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in schools (2002, 2003), and others of nutritional quality of school meals (2003), and the role of competitive foods in both diet and revenue (2005).

Solutions became problems yet again as efforts to provide healthier foods increased costs and reduced revenues, placing food service operators in a bind. In short, schools feared losing revenues from competitive food sales, and food service directors feared lower participation if healthier menus proved less appealing to children. Recognition of the “School Food Tri-lemma” of trade-offs among nutritional quality, costs, and student participation sparked additional research, notably an extensive assessment of School Lunch and Breakfast costs (Bartlett, Glantz, and Logan, 2008), and a study by The School Nutrition Association of the growing tendency of Local Educational Authorities to charge foodservice operations “indirect costs” for services that they had once contributed (SNA, 2006). Among school food professionals, rising costs are particularly troublesome when they induce school districts to contract out the provision of meals to food service management companies.

Participation may be seen as the intersection of the various concerns and problem definitions in school food research for several reasons. First, school meals can neither promote health nor relieve hunger for children who do not eat them. Second, as participation declines, the unit cost of producing each meal rises; maintaining participation is essential to the fiscal health of school food programs. And third, students from impoverished families typically cannot participate unless they are certified to receive free or reduced-price meals, and the certification process itself is fraught with problems and suffers from high levels of inaccuracy. Thus, the USDA has undertaken substantial research over the years to identify the characteristics of participants and those of eligible non-participants (Glantz, 1994; Ralston et al., 2008; and all of the SNDA series), and to devise and test alternatives to the family application for certification. Anti-hunger advocates also use participation as a benchmark, and the annual School Breakfast Scorecard issued by the Food Research and Action Center tracks the extent to which children who eat free and reduced-price lunches are also receiving breakfast (FRAC, 1991–2010).

Approximately every five years, the school food programs along with other child nutrition programs are subject to a Congressional review and “reauthorization.” In the run-up to the 2004 Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), participation data were subject to new scrutiny when officials within the Bush administration claimed that more children were certified to receive free or reduced-price meals than were eligible to receive them. The “over-certification” issue generated a host of new research on income volatility and related issues, research that resulted in significant improvements to program design in the 2004 reauthorization (Newman, 2006; Neuberger and Greenstein, 2003).

While the “overcertification” challenge receded in the face of the data, the underlying concern about fraud, abuse, and error did not. The terms “erroneous payments” and “program integrity” gained prominence, and the USDA undertook a series of studies to explore aspects of the application, certification, and verification process (Hulsey, Gleason and Ohls, 2004; Burghardt, Silva and Hulsey, 2004; Burghardt, Devancy and Gordon, 2004; Gleason, 1995; and USDA, FNS, 2005), culminating in a nationally representative study of erroneous payments made in the 2005–06 school year, entitled “National School Lunch Program/School Breakfast Program Access, Participation, Eligibility, and Certification Study” (Ponza et al., 2007), commonly referred to as APEC.

While hunger, health, costs, participation, and program integrity or payment accuracy reflect the primary concerns of the USDA, they do not exhaust the problem frames used to study the program. A new set of concerns has arisen from the environmental movement about the carbon footprint of school food operations, and a very old set of concerns about the impact of school meals on farmers has resurfaced as an emphasis on local and regional procurement: Farm to school or farm to cafeteria.

The latter are intimately connected to the issue of what children are learning from the food they eat at school, and a new round of “how-to” and program evaluation literature has sprung up in conjunction with farm to cafeteria, cooking in school, school garden, and agriculture in the classroom curricula (Gottlieb and Joshi, 2010; Joshi, Kalb and Beery, 2006; Valianatos, Gottlieb, and Haase, 2004; USDA Farm to School Team, 2011; and the publications listed on the website of the National Farm to School Network:

Innovations and school food reform have themselves become topics for research, with another round of both popular, “how-to,” and scholarly literature, including Anne Cooper and Lisa Holmes’s Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children (2006), historian Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics (2008), Kevin Morgan and Roberta Sonnino’s The School Food Revolution: Public Food and the Challenge of Sustainable Development (2008), Janet Poppendieck’s Free For All: Fixing School Lunch in America (2010), Sarah Robert and Marcus Weaver-Hightower’s School Food Politics: The Complex Ecology of Hunger and Feeding in Schools Around the World (2011), Amy Kalafas’s Lunch Wars: How to Start a School Food Revolution and Win the Battle for Our Children’s Health (2011), Sarah Wu (Mrs Q)’s Fed Up With Lunch: How One Anonymous Teacher Revealed the Truth About School Lunchesand How We Can Change Them (2011), and Kate Adamick’s forthcoming Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy.

Research methodologies

It is difficult to identify a methodology that has not been used in school food research. Studies range from the intimate—a single school or even a single classroom—to the massive—nationally representative samples as in the SNDA series. They involve survey data, menu analysis, analysis of production records, 24-hour food recalls, cafeteria observations, interviews in person and by phone with participants, non-participants, their parents, food service personnel, and other key informants. Photo documentation has been used to study students’ food choices and actual food consumption. The public health and dietetics literature, predictably, tends to use nutrient analysis, the economics literature uses cost and revenue data, the political science and historical literature uses Congressional documents such as the Congressional Record and committee hearings and the policy instruments of the USDA. Anti-hunger advocates analyze access and participation data. The Journal of Child Nutrition and Management publishes many case studies of innovations. Because so many households are touched by the school food programs, so many of us have eaten school meals at some point in life, so many people have opinions about how school food ought to be, there is room for a wide variety of methods and approaches.

The one approach that is severely limited at the macro scale is any variant of the experimental method. Researchers trying to assess the impact of programs on outcomes such as nutrition and health status face special challenges in regard to the NSLP. In general, impact research seeks to compare outcomes with the program in place to those that would have taken place in its absence, the so-called “counterfactual.” Researchers usually seek to “establish the counterfactual,” that is, to estimate what would have happened in the absence of a given program, by examining a population that has not been exposed to it. In the case of the NSLP, is difficult because the program is so widely available—in more than 90 percent of public schools. Within any school with the program, it is possible to compare participants and non-participants, but these groups tend to differ based on other factors that are highly relevant to the outcomes being studied. For example, if one wants to measure the impact of school lunch on body mass index (BMI), a comparison would need to take into account that lower income children are far more likely to participate than upper income children, and that poverty is correlated with BMI, even in the absence of school food. Such “selection bias” has posed enormous challenges for school food research; in order to “control for” such biases, samples often need to be very large (Fox, Hamilton and Lin, 2004: 13–19).

Most researchers will not have the resources to undertake research with samples large enough to allow such controls, but fortunately, the Department of Agriculture does fund such very large studies through the SNDA series. These studies are normally awarded to large-scale research contractors such as Mathematica Policy Research and Abt Associates. Researchers with questions that need such large-scale samples for answers are advised to contact the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture to explore the possibility of including their issues in the next round of SNDA.

Avenues for future research

Alternatives and innovations

Because there is currently a great deal of energy and effort directed to efforts to improve school food, one of the most promising avenues of research is the assessment of innovations and alternatives, both here in the US and in other societies from which we might learn. Case studies of innovations offer a rich opportunity. Two very different types of work are needed here. First, with so much experimentation going on, there is an almost insatiable need for evaluations of pilot programs and new approaches, and these might be conducted at a variety of levels including the individual school or classroom, the school system, the state, the federal, and the global. Multiple case research designs can offer the benefits of comparative studies and illuminate the barriers to achieving desired outcomes. Where program innovations reflect policy change, there is also a need for historical and contextual assessments: How did it happen? What explains the adoption of stricter standards for competitive foods in some state legislatures and their failure to secure passage in others, for example. As the provisions of the most recent Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, are gradually implemented, there will be a great need for close observation of the way reforms in nutrient standards for competitive foods, revised nutrition standards for school meals, and changes in access to school food play out “on the ground” in varied community settings. Finally, case studies of school food in other nations can provide insights into their food cultures and a reservoir of policy ideas for the US.

The business of school food

A second area of needed study is that of the business of school food, particularly the roles of suppliers, vendors, brokers, food manufacturers, and food service management companies. Studies need to focus on procurement decisions—how they are made—and on supply chains. Again, case studies are needed—of both standard practices and of innovations in supply like farm to cafeteria programs. Most school districts in the US still operate their own programs (called self-operated or “self-ops”), but a growing number have entered into contracts with food service management companies such as Aramark, Sodexo, or Chartwells, generally referred to as FSMCs. Case studies of transitions from one approach to the other would be particularly useful, as would comparative evaluations of food quality, participation, and health outcomes. Recent attention to the violation of federal rules requiring FSMCs to pass along to their public sector clients the value of the rebates offered by food manufacturers should raise interest in the whole process of marketing to schools. Content analysis of the advertising directed at food service procurement decision makers is an opportunity ripe for excavation.

The work and the workforce

The current public interest in food quality has directed attention to the actual work of preparing and serving school food. As parents began to ask why there was so little preparation of fresh food going on in the school kitchen, they were often surprised to learn that defrost-and-reheat technologies had long ago replaced stoves and cooking skills. Again, case studies of efforts to retrain foodservice workers and to upgrade culinary skills and knowledge seem promising. The work of Cook for America, Food Systems Solutions LLC, the Orfalea Foundation in Santa Barbara, CA and Wellness in the Schools in New York City, are examples of culinary training initiatives that could be studied. Because school food jobs are on the school calendar, they are particularly desirable for parents, especially single parents. More study of the role of school food employment in local economies would be welcome. Comparisons of work life, salaries, benefits, and human capital development in FSMC and self-op systems would be particularly useful.

The social relations of the cafeteria

There is a real gap in the existing literature when it comes to what actually happens in the school cafeteria. Murray Milner’s Freaks, Geeks and Cool Kids shows just how much we can learn from careful observation in school lunchrooms. We need more ethnographic study of the social relations that arise, both among consumers (and non-consumers) of school meals, between students and staff, and among staff. Given the importance of shared meals to human social interaction, it seems odd that there is so little literature about what students experience in the school food setting.

School food reform as social movement

There is ample room for studies of school food reform efforts from a social movements perspective. Again, case studies, multiple case studies, and international comparisons would all be helpful.

Practical considerations for getting started

Because the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program are federal programs, and the federal research investment is both deep and extensive, almost any school food research project should begin by consulting the relevant federal research, and the USDA does a good job of making the research accessible through its websites. For a listing of available studies, go to: (accessed on April 10, 2012). In addition, in 2008 the Economic Research Service, the branch of USDA that oversees most large-scale research studies, published a useful overview of recent research entitled “The National School Lunch Program: Background, Trends and Issues,” by Katherine Ralston, Constance Newman, Annettte Clauson, Joanne Guthrie, and Jean Buzby (Ralston et al., 2008). It is an essential starting point.

Within the corpus of USDA-sponsored research, the SNDA series continues to be a treasure trove. The original SNDA was completed by Mathematica Policy Research using data collected in 1991–92 and released in 1993. SNDA-II was conducted by Abt Associates, Inc., using data collected during the 1998–99 school year and released in 2001. SNDA-III was done by Mathematica, collecting data in 2004–05 and released late in 2007. And SNDA-IV, again conducted by Mathematica, is currently in progress with data collected at the time of writing, January–June, 2010.

Another important starting point is also a result of federal investment in research. In 2004, Abt Associates prepared for the USDA a major report on the Effects of Food Assistance and Nutrition Programs on Nutrition and Health (Fox, Hamilton, and Lin, 2004). This very useful document included a volume of literature review, with a chapter on the NSLP and another on the SBP. It is available on the web at–3/fanrr19-3.pdf (accessed on April 10, 2012).

A different federal resource for studying school food is the USDA system for publicizing policy, rules, and guidance to regional offices and school food authorities.

Note that all policy memos are available online at (accessed on April 10, 2012), as are guidance letters issued by the USDA for states and school food authorities at (accessed on April 10, 2012).

For scholars interested in the history of school food, there are several collections of particular interest. The National School Food Management Institute (NSFMI) located at the University of Mississippi has a wonderful collection of papers and oral histories in its “Child Nutrition Archive,” substantial portions of which can be accessed online. These papers include those of Thelma Flanagan, long the Director of Food and Nutrition Services for the State of Florida, who gathered material for a history of school food that she wrote in the 1960s, an excellent starting point for any historical venture (Flanagan, 1969). Similarly, the papers of Dr Josephine Martin, the first director of the NSFMI and the editor of a major textbook on food service management, contain a great deal of material helpful for historical study. Over the years the Congressional Research Service has done a number of historical summaries for Congressional committees, and some of these are also available through the Child Nutrition Archive. One of these summaries was incorporated into a document released in 1989 by the House Committee on Education and Labor, and then reprinted in full in the School Food Service Research Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, under the title “Child Nutrition Programs: Issues for the 101st Congress.” The HEARTH (Home Economics Archive: Research Tradition and History) prepared by the Mann Library at Cornell University is a fabulous collection of books and journals in home economics and related disciplines from 1850 until 1950; the entire collection is available electronically.

The NSFMI also conducts studies of its own and collects literature on school food operations; students interested in the inner workings of the menu planning and food preparation process or in the finances and management of school food would do well to search the NSFMI databases. The Journal of Child Nutrition and Management began publishing in 1977 as the School Foodservice Research Review. Thus it serves as an essential source for both historical scholarship and contemporary studies of innovations and practices. The Journal of the American Dietetic Association, the Journal of the American Public Health Association, Pediatrics, and the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior (Journal of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior) are also important sources for school food research.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) (formerly the American School Foodservice Association) is the professional association of school food service workers; its membership embraces both frontline workers (aka “lunch ladies”) and food service directors and school business officials. Its monthly magazine, currently called School Nutrition, is another essential for scholars looking to understand the realties of school food in the United States. A monthly publication aimed at a broader range of food service managers including hospital, correctional, and other institutional settings, corporate dining services and employee cafeterias of all sorts, and college campuses as well as K–12 school meals is Food Management, available in both print and online editions. School business managers have their own association, ASBO, the Association of School Business Officials International (see and their own monthly magazine, School Business Affairs. Similarly, the National School Boards Association has a website ( and a monthly publication, American School Board Journal.

A number of the advocacy groups active in the school food arena maintain active websites and conduct and publicize research. The School Nutrition Association is a major resource at the national level, and every state has a state association of school food service workers, usually called the [name of state] School Nutrition Association. The Center for Ecoliteracy maintains a web-based resource called Rethinking School Lunch (, accessed on April 10, 2012).

Essential resources for the study of school food and school food activism can be found on the websites—and in the libraries—of national organizations including Action for Healthy Kids (, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (, the Food Research and Action Center (, Bread For the World (, Mazon: a Jewish Response to Hunger (, Kids Can Make a Difference (, WhyHunger? (, the Community Food Security Coalition (, the National Farm to School Network (, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (, the Alliance to End Hunger (, Share Our Strength (, the Congressional Hunger Center (, Feeding America (, Slow Food USA (, the Children’s Defense Fund (, School Food Focus (, and an alliance of many of these organizations called NAHO, the National Anti Hunger Organizations ( In addition, links to resources are provided on the website of Let’s Move, the First Lady’s initiative to end childhood obesity (

Within each state, there is a branch of Action for Healthy Kids, and most states have at least one statewide anti-hunger organization. Some states have an organization that specializes in child nutrition. In some states, statewide organizations of PTAs or of school boards have useful websites. Typically, the state Action for Healthy Kids site will have links to other relevant voluntary associations within the states.

Several philanthropic foundations have taken an interest in school food. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is composed of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation. The W. K. Kellogg Foundation has made significant investments in better school food as has the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Chez Panisse Foundation, the Whole Kids Foundation, and the Food Family Farming Foundation all consider grants in this arena, though the federal government remains by far the largest funder of research on school food.


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