I had a nice summer break, and I’m so excited to jump back into YOUR FAVORITE PROF this fall. Many of you signed up for my newsletter this summer, and I’d like to reintroduce myself. I’m a teacher. I’m a historian. And, I’m obsessed with fast food. I wrote a book called Franchise about it, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in History. I didn’t see that coming. I often appear on podcasts, documentaries, and wherever a talking head is needed to provide historical framing, a little context, or a hot, bubbling take. Recently, I published a piece in The Washington Post about the relationship between fast food and evangelical Christianity. I see fast food everywhere. And, I see this newsletter as an opportunity to share my great loves (other than my spouse and my five-month old baby, who is unquestionably the cutest baby of our time)—fast food and good teaching with you.
I’m teaching two of my favorite courses this semester, Women and the Civil Rights Movement and a seminar on the Great Migration. This week we are reading Jo Ann Gibson Robinson’s The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women who Started It and Farrah Jasmine Griffin’s Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Great Migration Narrative. I’ve been showing students clips of a not-the-very-best 2002 made-for-TV movie about Rosa Parks, starring national treasures Angela Bassett and Cicely Tyson. Watching the film while reading the scholarship on the movement highlights the cultural misunderstandings of the momentous boycott of 1955. For the Migration class, a pair of students created a Spotify channel with the blues and gospel songs referenced in Griffin’s book. Playlists are a great way of creating a student project, that can be shared virtually, and for students interested in music and performing arts, it opens up space for them to shine.Teaching both of these courses in light of recent events has reminded me of what I’ve learned after more than a decade of college-level teaching: The content may stay the same and enlighten students, but the shifting context in which I teach is what really make a difference. Teaching a class on migration while the world watches droves of people fleeing Afghanistan has opened up new routes for conversation about the conditions that push people out of the land of their birth and the uncertainties that meet people when they resettle in new ones. Each time I teach about the ways that misogyny and homophobia silenced and truncated the participation of some civil rights workers and leaders, students can connect the problems of the past with contemporary circumstances when groups can be united on one front and bifurcated on others. All of this is to say, we are all teaching in fascinating times, and it’s a privilege to do so!
There has been a wealth of fascinating fast food news the past few months, and my back-to-school energy makes me think a lot about school lunches, particularly the issue of fast food being served in school cafeterias. In 1990, a McDonald’s franchisee in San Antonio took over the cafeteria at his son’s school, after the small Catholic high school had lost tens of thousands of dollars in staff and operation costs for its cafeteria. That same year in Boulder, Colorado, a school invited a McDonald’s franchisee to set up shop in a high school cafeteria to boost student participation in the lunch program. In a number of press articles about the Golden Arches on high school campuses, the reports marked the early 1990s as the first time McDonald’s elbowed onto lunch lady turf (which when you think about it, they have a lot in common with McDonald’s workers in that they are not unionized, have no access to benefits and often work for low wages). Often, McDonald’s corporate reps assured the public that this was not going to be a trend. But, curiously enough, I found an article from 1976, about a McDonald’s taking over the cafeteria operations of a Benton, Arkansas high school in an attempt to boost revenue for the school. Students could order everything but milkshakes at school (school administrators didn’t want milkshakes to compete with federal milk allocations). The slow creep of fast food into school lunches didn’t start and stop with Ronald McDonald donning a hair net and throwing a few burgers on trays; other brands saw the opportunity in going to school as well. The image of Ronald McDonald as a cafeteria worker is really terrifying. Sorry I did that.
Anyway, in 1993, Taco Bell began supplying burritos to suburban Southern California high schools, a move which sparked concerned among its food service staff that their jobs would be at risk if the school continued to relied on pre-made foods from an outside supplier, rather than the fare created by the kitchen staff. In 1984, Pizza Hut launched the BOOK IT! program to award children who read books with gift certificates for personal pan pizzas and Pizza Hut ephemera as part of their corporate social responsibility project of child literacy. While xennials like myself remember the BOOK IT prizes and redeeming their own slice of heaven at America’s favorite restaurant with trapezoidal windows, few may know that Pizza Hut has also launched a direct-to-schools delivery program called A+ Pizza Program, after a battle with the USDA to seek exemption from regulations about inspecting meats served in schools. Pizza Hut also adjusted its recipe to make sure that their pizzas are light enough on calories to meet national school lunch standards for calories and fat content, as well as overall nutrition.
The trend continued, and the fast food additions to schools helped boost much needed cafeteria revenues. By the late 1990s, fast food chains were in about 13% of U.S. school cafeterias. Naomi Klein noted this in her brilliant 1999 book No Logo.
“Subway supplies 767 schools with sandwiches; Pizza Hut corners the market in approximately 4,000 schools; and a staggering 20,000 schools participate in Taco Bell’s ‘frozen burrito product line.” By playing on fears of students cutting classes or hanging out at fast food joints, school administrators just brought fast food to school.
Although Klein noted that school lunch agreements did not allow children who used reduced and free lunch vouchers to access this style of catering, research shows that poor children are consuming fast food outside of school at rates higher than their affluent peers. When I was in high school, the issue of fast food in school cafeterias was excellent fodder for advocates for childhood nutrition to sound the alarms about youth and eating preferences; they argued that school should be the last place to offer high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar foods and drinks to children, and these campaigns were effective in banning not only fast food on the menu, but also provisioning vending machines with ‘healthier’ options (is apple juice nutrient rich) that were often packed to the brim with sodas and chips.
Although it is easy to line up against fast food being sold inside of schools, more recent crack downs on food in school have pivoted around a different issue—social class and the expansion of food delivery services. Recently, a number of schools have banned meal delivery to school campuses or the practice of parents bringing fast food to students for birthdays or as a special treat at school, out of concern about the ways these acts alienate students without the financial means to order foods. In a diversion from the traditional tropes of school discipline—we all do the same thing; we should all consume what we deem healthy—the centering of financial disparities points to one of the central purposes of school meals: reducing hunger among poor children and reducing stigma about eating at school by making food available to everyone.
The school lunch has had a long, contentious history in the United States. One excellent longform piece about it from Huffington Post describes school lunch as
…an $11.7 billion behemoth that feeds more than 31 million children each day, is a mess, and has been for years. Conflicts of interest were built into the program. It was pushed through Congress after World War II with the support of military leaders who wanted to ensure that there would be enough healthy young men to fight the next war, and of farmers who were looking for a place to unload their surplus corn, milk and meat. The result was that schools became the dumping ground for the cheap calories our modern agricultural system was designed to overproduce.
School lunch became nationally available for all poor children via federal subsidy until 1946; throughout the 1960s, Johnson’s War on Poverty created provisions for free breakfast, free milk, and summer meals to boost child nutrition. The article continues:
What makes school lunch so contentious, though, isn’t just the question of what kids eat, but of which kids are doing the eating. As Poppendieck recounts in her book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, the original program provided schools with food and, later, cash to subsidize the cost of meals. But by the early 1960s, schools weren’t receiving enough to feed all their students, and many pulled out of the program. As a result, middle-class students, whose parents could cover the difference between the government subsidy and the actual cost of a meal, ended up benefiting the most from school lunch, while the truly needy went hungry. This moral failing became clear in 1968, when a landmark report called “Their Daily Bread” revealed that only one-third of the 6 million children living in poverty were receiving free or subsidized lunch. Schools’ ability to pay for food was so limited that one in Mississippi rotated 100 lunches among more than 400 students, while another in Alabama had just 15 meals for 1,000 needy kids. School lunch had its first official scandal.
As school boards tried to trim budgets and cut overhead costs during the lean years starting in the 1970s, fast food restaurants became a more common site on campus to serve up meals or as suppliers of convenience foods that encouraged more students to purchase meals in lieu of packing a lunch.
School lunch is often the convenient object of debate about the boundaries between the state and the family. Michelle Obama’s advocacy for The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which tightened school lunch standards was excellent fodder for the reactionary Right’s anti-nanny state sentiments.
The final standards make the same kinds of practical changes that many parents are already encouraging at home, including:
Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week
Substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods;
Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size; and
Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.
We’ve all heard the arguments before about parents and guardians deciding what their children should eat, rather than school boards. In a time in which battles over mandatory mask policies at schools have inspired outrageous behavior—from death threats to actual violence, we are reminded of the ways that school battles are rarely just about protecting children. Rather, from fights over integration, school prayer, sex education, English language instruction, approval of gay-straight alliances, and so on and so forth, schools provide the perfect space to air ideological and political grievances. More often than not, it really isn’t about the kids.
If you are in Chicago this weekend, drop by the Printer’s Row Literary Festival. I’ll be in conversation with Elizabeth Taylor of the National Book Review (and…who I incidentally sat across from when I was an intern at The Chicago Tribune in college when she was a literary editor at the newspaper) about Franchise. I’ll be on the CSPAN Stage from 12-1 CST on Saturday, September 11, and then I’m signing books.
Until Next Time,
Your Favorite Prof
I’m a BOOKIT baby myself which was the only time we could afford fast food in elementary school. By middle school we had enough for me to occasionally gorge on the Little Caesars pizza and Otis Spunkmeyer cookies.
great read! love the playlist idea when teaching historical periods. :) school lunch debates be nuts -- remember Jamie Oliver in West Virginia showing how much sugar kids consume in a year in school?