Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Serving it up at Manenberg Primary!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Does it always come back to communism?!

Greetings from Roma! This wraps up my first week abroad, wow!! I hope you are doing well wherever you are in the world, and that it isn't as hot as it is here. At 34 C/92 F (I'm learning Celsius and the metric system, it'll be awhile before I'm back in the US...), sometimes it's too hot to think... so the only solution is to eat gelato!

(Gelato with ricotta and figs. SO GOOD!!)

Besides eating gelato, I have had the amazing opportunity to explore around Roma and meet some great people. Aaaaand, I've had some time to do research, and want to make a few posts contextualizing my project even further.

How did the National School Lunch Program Develop?

This is the photo that greets you when you log onto the National School Lunch Program website. Though this picture may exist somewhere (since when does a lunchroom have such vibrant lighting, racial diversity, beautiful looking food, happy children?), no politician from the 1940s would have fathomed that the NSLP would turn out like the picture above. 

The NSLP had a complex, arduous, and nonlinear development. 

Does that strike you as odd? It did for me. The NSLP was a constant in my childhood, as though nothing could shake the ever-prevalent meals that I ate. However, in actuality, the NSLP endured ideological debates, it greatly fluctuated in the number of children it served, and was even called "one of the most dangerous bills that has ever been brought to the floor of the House" (John Taber, a US congressman) ...

... Okay, was it really that dramatic?   

(President Harry Truman signing the National School Lunch Act in 1946, with congressmen behind him).

Though there are numerous factors that influenced the emergence of the NSLP, I will be discussing two of four major factors that contributed to the establishment of the National School Lunch Act of 1946 - and contributed to the drama and tension around this program. 

1. Great Depression and the Start of Farm Subsidies
Though the official bill was passed in 1946, the beginning of school lunches can be traced back to the Great Depression era. The Great Depression brought economic ruin to the United States, and threatened one of the country's most vital industries: farming. The farming industry was already experiencing economic downturn due to World War I; farmers had rapidly increased production to fit the agricultural needs of Europe (It's hard to farm when bombshells are hitting your fields, eh?), so the end of the war brought an abrupt drop-off of agricultural exports. This left farmers with excess supply of farm goods and little demand. Once the market crashed in 1929, farms were in even greater trouble: a farmer produced hundreds of pounds of corn and potatoes, but had no one to sell them to. 

In order to protect the farmers from foreclosure, as well as feed the thousands of undernourished families that were affected by the Depression, FDR created farm subsidies and buy-backs. The government purchased farm goods and delivered them to schools, creating a program that "was shaped by a market-based model of surplus commodity disposal even more than on theories of nutrition or plans for children’s welfare" (Levine, 40). The government subsidies and buy-backs were beneficial for farmers and children ... but in reality, the subsidies were directly intended for the farmers, and the children were a secondary benefit. The prioritization of the farming industry over children's nutrition lasted into the mid 1970s, and the farming industry fought tooth and nail to retain its benefits. (This is tangentially related, but these subsidies are a key player in creating "Agribusiness," the powerful agricultural, meat and dairy industries that have great power and stake within the USDA. I'll post about this later, but the NSLP is housed within the USDA, which has created big problems for funding due to Agribusiness lobbying for funds.) 

[A Great Depression lunch room. Oftentimes, since the government bought back agricultural products that were "suffering" the worst (had the lowest market value), children would often have lunches that entirely consisted of onions or beets or olives. Could you imagine eating only onions for lunch?]

Yum. *Cringe*

2. Communism and Patriotism


While the US's historical context definitively played a role in establishing the NSLP, international history and politics were also highly influential. Cue blog post title. As conversations about providing school meals circulated, the post-WWII fear of communism gripped the world. 

Within the context of the Red Scare, the NSLP was a source of worry - yet a source of confidence and patriotism - for Americans. When Congress discussed the details of the School Lunch Act, the question of control was a direct response to communism; many Congressmen feared that giving control the federal government, also called "Washington interference" during this time, could lend to much centralized power and lead to an American communist government.

[John Taber (left), a US Representative from NY, was one of the most vocal Congressmen about communism and the NSLP. He thought of the NSLP as "one of the most dangerous bills that has ever been brought to the floor of the House."]

As a result, Congress refused to pass a bill that gave the federal government control over the NSLP. States were granted oversight of the program This created huge problems for the NSLP, as there was no governmental funding and no enforcement of equitable practices. No enforcement meant that states could discriminate against its students and selectively give lunch to specific school districts. I will continue this topic in my next blog (that states used the NSLP to discriminate against and withhold lunches from Black students and poor students), so stay tuned.  Altogether, the fears of communism predisposed the NSLP to be a highly decentralized program.

On the other hand, the NSLP was perceived as a symbol of patriotism. Presidents Truman believed that "no nation is any healthier than its children," and used the NSLP as a major combatant against communism. Nixon, an avid supporter of the NSLP, said that communism could be defeated with "kitchen appliances." While I mentioned above that communism succeeded in stifling the NSLP in its inception, it also provided an emblem of American strength: if American children have strong bones, they'll have strong minds and bodies to fight communism.

(He looks ready to fight, 'Murrica!)

The NSLP was caught in a double bind. It served as a symbol of American patriotism and success, implying that it adequately provides for its children; but its decentralized nature prevented the program from serving the children that desperately needed food.

More to come soon on the two remaining factors that heavily influenced the development of the National School Lunch Program. :)

On a personal note:
Roma has been an incredible time so far, full of kind-hearted folk, both native Italians and travelers alike. Earlier today I went running in the Villa Borghese, and on the way home, I stumbled on a cobblestone (typical Erin) and struck my knee into the ground. It took me a moment a get up due to the pain ... and I was embarrassed to have slammed to the ground like a sack of potatoes...

But when I looked up, a most gentlemanly Italian asked softly, "Stai bene?" Though this seems completely normal, I was incredibly grateful for his kindness. I thanked him, and kept running. On the run back home, I thought about how this question fit in with travels so far:

"Stai bene, Erin?"

And I would say, in a terrible Itali-American accent,

"Io sono buono, la vita è grande, ed è una benedizione di essere vivo."



This is a GORGEOUS church that I randomly ran into (almost literally, took a corner too fast. Perhaps I should've seen the cobblestone injury coming...).

No comments:

Post a Comment