As Janet Poppendieck writes in Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, we live in “a new age in which a business model … permeate[s] school food.” Where lunchrooms in the past treated children as lucky recipients, they now view them as customers whose business must be won. Vending machines light up the hallways, usually through an exclusive contractual arrangement between school or school district and a company like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. Fast-food operations like Subway and KFC set up shop in the food court, tempting away all the students with enough money to afford a hoagie or fried chicken strips. Alongside the traditional cafeteria meal are a la carte lines where burgers and French fries (and their unholy cousins, tater tots) glisten with grease under the lamplights, exempted in all their fatty glory from USDA nutritional requirements. Even those children who buy the standard hot meal eat mostly junk: pizza with fries hits all of the major food groups, if you define the groups expansively enough. As Ronald Reagan’s USDA famously taught us, ketchup is, after all, a vegetable.
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Another central concern of Free for All is school hunger—an ironically persistent problem in an age of plenty and excessive freedom of choice. Schools have largely failed to reduce the stigma that accompanies accepting a free lunch. In many schools, nonpaying children stand in separate lines from their classmates, and in some California schools they are the only students who eat inside in the cafeteria rather than outside in the pay-as-you-go food court, because the trays cannot be taken out of doors. Poppendieck is justifiably outraged by this insensitivity, which segregates children by income and leads some to skip meals so as to avoid cruel jibes from their wealthier friends.