Friday, April 1, 2011

Book Review: Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, by Janet Poppendieck

Poppendieck, J. (2010). Free for all: Fixing school food in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reviewed by Rachel K. Miller, VT Dietetic Intern

How do you remember school lunch?  A windowless room lined with uneven tables and lopsided round stools?  Is it eating the soft, warm, yeasty roll that always had its own compartment on the tray?  Or was it the excitement of getting to drink the chocolate milk that was forbidden at home?  Whatever your memory of school lunch was, you may be surprised by the reality of today’s cafeteria experience. 
In Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, firsthand accounts from college students describe cafeteria days filled with long lines, foul odors, and a stigma attached to eating the standard school lunch.  Other students remembered going off campus to a local convenience store or restaurant, eating outside, or even purchasing food from fast food vendors who were invited into the cafeteria.  Some even remember avoiding the cafeteria all together, and maybe grabbing a bag of chips and a soda from the vending machine.
Alongside these accounts, Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, City University of New York, outlines how the National School Lunch Program began and how it has progressed into the program in which students are currently participating (or not participating, as the case may be).  Throughout the book’s 296 pages, firsthand accounts, interviews, anecdotes, and hopes for the future are woven together with facts about the progression of the program as well as the policy and politics behind school food. 
Whether you are a policy maker, parent, nutritionist, dietitian, or someone who “brown bagged” it to avoid the cafeteria daily, this book will challenge your thoughts about the school lunch program and is likely to leave you with more questions to ponder than answers.


Published in 2010, Free For All is a timely work that continues to bring childhood nutrition to the forefront in a political light.  With the hype of Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization Act, The First Lady’s call to action and “Let’s Move” campaign, and the national obsession with health, food, weight, and money, Poppendieck chose an opportune time to publish such a work.  While her opinions and loyalties clearly emerge throughout the text, the overall tone of the work remains mostly respectful, informative, and motivational.  An extensive commentary and index at the end of the book provide all of the references to research, interviews, and firsthand accounts mentioned in the chapters. 
Strengths of the work include solid research and a citation for practically every other sentence.  It is obvious that the history of the school lunch program and the other objective information presented are truly factual and provide a learning opportunity for any reader.  The book also challenges the reader to critically think about and appreciate the situation in which school food service directors and cafeteria workers live every day:”  the decision of what to serve and how  to serve it is not an easy one.  Poppendieck presents the more obvious challenges such as the need to serve children of all economic, educational, and ethnic backgrounds with one standard meal pattern as well as some that may not be so apparent.  What happens to the children whose parents make just enough money to not qualify for free or reduced lunch, but still cannot afford lunch?  These are just two examples of the questions Poppendieck raises throughout the text.  The work is also laid out beautifully—a solid foundation of where school food started and what is has evolved into today is a necessary background to the opinions and calls to action that are the main purpose of the book.
The main weakness of the work is the repetitive nature of the author’s point.  The entire conclusion chapter is simply a rehashing of everything that the Poppendieck already said in the previous chapters.  While the information is important and necessary for nutrition professionals to be aware of, it could have been presented more succinctly. 

Overall, reading the book was an educational experience to say the least.  It is important for health professionals, parents, teachers, and students to keep up-to-date with the latest “talk” around the school food system.  This book surely gives a detailed overview and urgent perspective that many political and nutrition professionals hold.  As questions begin to form in the minds of readers, additional information from the “other side” of the “Free for All” argument will hopefully be sought out, allowing the reader to form his/her own opinion on the subject.  This reviewer and future dietitian now feels that she has the information to intelligently converse about the topic with colleagues.  Unfortunately, because the book is very much in the here-and-now, the information may be considered outdated in less than five years.

Like this review?  Read others by VT Dietetic Interns:  more book reviews 

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