- Eating Democracy and Corn Puppies
Most of us have a favorite school lunch; mine was turkey cubes and gravy over mashed potatoes, my husband’s, chicken and rice. My son’s current favorite is cheese-stuffed breadsticks with chocolate milk, while my daughter prefers “school green beans” to all others. In an engaging, informative book, Susan Levine explains the origin of this sometimes tasty, other times slim “welfare program,” explaining why endless amounts of apricots might appear on school lunch trays, even when children do not particularly like apricots. In fact, the school lunch program has its origins in both nutrition science and surplus food programs within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The school lunch program was uneven in its application, gendered in its origins, and, as a welfare program, came to have a strange position in the USDA. This book makes a significant contribution to scholarship about the gendered history of the welfare state established by Alice Kessler-Harris, Gwendolyn Mink and others, by revealing how women built this program and struggled with male policy makers to defend nutrition over agricultural surplus on school menus. Levine relies upon census records, USDA papers, nutrition science journals, newspapers, and transcripts of congressional hearings to craft a fast-paced detailed history of school lunch policy.
School lunches originated as nutrition programs. Between 1900 and 1940, various groups came together including “nutrition scientists, home economists, and social reformers” to change American eating habits (p. 10). Reformers wanted school lunches to be nutrition-based so as to meet the needs of the economically needy and those of people who did not know how to plan a balanced meal, including middle-class Americans (p. 11). School lunch programs (SLP) are the product of Progressive era reforms, which attempted to tackle the problems exposed by urbanization, industrialization, and immigration. As with other progressive campaigns like those to end child labor, women reformers were central to the creation of the school lunch program. Home economist Ellen Richards’s research about nutrition provided the basis for the [End Page 117] SLP. Building on the work of Rima Apple’s Vitamania: Vitamins in American Culture (1996), Levine notes that the late nineteenth century was a time when scientists were learning a great deal about the elements of nutrition, including carbohydrates, proteins, and calories. An early goal of nutrition science was to convince the lower classes that inexpensive food could be nutritious if chosen correctly. Nutrition science inadvertently “fed the notion that social inequality was due to cultural habit rather than economic condition” by suggesting that the poor were simply bad choice makers (p. 17).1 If workers could just learn to eat healthy and economize, they could live within their meager salaries.
Within the context of the settlement house movement, women like Ellen Richards helped to professionalize and feminize social work. They “struggled to build professional identities and establish the legitimacy of their field” (p. 37). In an age-old plan to shape immigrant culture by Americanizing children, Ellen Richards latched onto the school lunch room where “she could teach children the value of nutrition, and . . . the children would take those lessons home and influence mothers as well” (p. 22). Richards played a key role in labeling women who did not cook nutritious foods as bad mothers by portraying a relationship between healthy diet and “virtue” (p. 23). Levine places these middle-class “food reformers” in the context of Gwendolyn Mink’s exploration of Progressive Era Little Mother’s Leagues in The Wages of Motherhood (1995) and George Sanchez’s critique of Los Angeles Americanization programs in Becoming Mexican American (1993). She departs from this literature when she argues that “nutrition science held the very real promise of improved health, stronger bodies and longer lives” (p. 26). At root, Americanization programs like the ones critiqued by Mink and Sanchez were designed to change the food ways of immigrants, but in some cases they also improved children’s health. Levine does not ignore food reformers’ flaws. She notes...