By Susan Levine
Princeton University Press 2008, 252 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)
Warning: don't take this book to the beach, unless you are a wonk. It is not light reading, no matter what the attractive period cover photo or modestly snarky subtitle may imply. The fact is, this book was written by an academic — Levine is a professor of history at the University of Illinois-Chicago — and professorial prose marks every page. Most pages are thick with closely set type and paragraphs are loooong.
Nevertheless, if you are looking for facts, for a dry and thorough run-through of the history of “America's favorite welfare program,” it's hard to imagine anything more comprehensive. Nor does Levine just stick with straight history. Instead, she offers suggestions and possible improvements to policies that she sees as deficient or ineffective.
Levine's clear breadth of understanding the National School Lunch program comes through in her discussions of how different school meal policies developed and why they continue. In these chapters, the meaning of her subtitle becomes clear.
A fundamental disconnect in the school lunch program is its dual and contradictory mission of being both an agricultural subsidy program and a child nutrition program. Levine spends considerable time on this issue and her analysis is worth the time invested for anyone not familiar with the program's history and politics.