American school officials’ attitudes about the relationship between kids and their school lunches have swung from shades of strict social Darwinism to reflections of the free-market mentality over the last century, as Michael O’Donnell explains in his Washington Monthly book review. Thus, the ideal of character-building deprivation gave way to the age of the tater tot. –KA

Washington Monthly via Arts & Letters Daily:

This spirit of tut-tut character building through patronizing if affectionate deprivation comes off as thoroughly British, but for a time the attitude spanned the Atlantic. In 1906, one American principal opposed the growing enthusiasm for a school lunch program by warning: “If you attempt to take hardship and suffering out of their lives by smoothing the pathway of life for these children, you weaken their character, and by so doing, you sin against the children themselves and, through them, against society.” Let them starve a little, went the thinking—it won’t kill them, and it’s better than getting fat on sweets.

Shameful, no? So now we have swung around a full 180 degrees to the opposite extreme, at least in American school lunchrooms. 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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