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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Book Review - Free For All by Janet Poppendieck

I wanted to review Free For All: Fixing School Food in America by Janet Poppendieck because in my non-podcast life, I’m working with a bunch of other community-minded folks to start a school.  Don’t worry, it’s not a for-profit, scummy charter school.  Also, being interested in what I eat as well as what kids eat, I thought this would be a great read for the podcast.  Turns out I was right.  For the lazy, just go to the last chapter, the conclusion.  Poppendieck calls for all school lunches to be free for all.  Now before you start screaming “socialism!” you’ll have to read the rest of the book.  Poppendieck takes us through how we ended up serving food in school, how free and reduced lunch programs started followed by breakfast in school.  She also spells out the problems with all of these programs.  While good intentioned, the way they are is a waste of money, a waste of food and a waste of time.  Here are the problems:

Breakfast and lunch programs are a waste of food.  Kids don’t eat most of them as the food tends to be pre-made, re-heated stuff (with the emphasis on “stuff”), that while it may meet certain nutritional standards, isn’t really good for you and is not appetizing.  Then there’s the problem of getting families that qualify to participate.  There’s the embarrassment factor of getting a “free lunch” as well as the intrusion of having to provide financial information.  From the administrative perspective, it costs a lot of time and money to run these programs – which are doomed to fail anyway because of the ala carte options in most school lunchrooms that entice kids with junk food. 

Poppendieck shows that kids will eat food that is good for them if given the opportunity, but you’ll have to get rid of the junky options.  By moving toward local, healthy food it would help the school, the kids, the economy and more.  It’s really a win – win situation.  Children who eat better (or eat at all) do better in school.  Making all meals free for everyone would free school staff from the costly and time consuming administration that is necessary to make sure everyone is on the free & reduced program who should be. 

The book itself is generally an easy read.  The sections that use anecdotes to illustrate the situation and prove her points are interesting and her conclusions are well thought-out.  It does get a bit dry while she presents statistical evidence, but in this reader’s opinion, it’s pretty tough to make stats that aren’t connected to baseball seem interesting. 

A good read.  If you have kids, are connected to schools in some way and/or are interested in a better way of making our society work, give Free For All a read and them make your friends read it.  I am.


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