Review: The School Food Revolution

The School Food Revolution: Public Food and the Challenge of Sustainable Development

By Kevin Morgan and Roberta Sonnino
Earthscan Publications, Ltd.
(240 pages)

Reviewed by Sarah E. Cunningham
Department of Anthropology, Oregon State University


What comes to mind when you hear the phrase ‘school lunch’? A Lunchable® with a Ding-Dong and juice box in a Superman lunch box? Maybe it included a note from your mom. Or perhaps it is standing in line with a pastel plastic lunch tray (the kind with a section for each item the lunch ladies served), a carton of milk, sliced peaches in syrup, green beans, tater-tots and a chicken patty sandwich. For some ‘school lunch’ recalls the stigma felt as other children paid for their lunches with cash rather than having their name checked off a list of free lunch recipients.

Unless you are familiar with school food systems and the contexts in which they operate you might not think of such things as the paternalistic nature of food aid, the high sodium and fat content of many school menu items, or time constraints of school food service, let alone the democratic power of purchase which stands to be reclaimed by the sustainable school food movement. In The School Food Revolution, environmentally, economically, and socially ethical procurement and consumption are markers of school food sustainability, and sustainable development more broadly.

The School Food Revolution is an exploration through case studies, which emerge from many points along the spectrum of school food experience-domestic and international, urban and rural, in nations developed and developing. Each of the case studies is holistically presented-history, politics, economics, social structures, etc. However, there are other lenses through which to view public school food systems. The U.S., as well noted by The School Food Revolution, is a major force in global food assistance. This is reason enough to look more closely at school food systems within the U.S., which The School Food Revolution does only for New York. Case studies from other U.S. regions, with their particular histories and social compositions would add even more to an understanding of food systems. Internationally speaking, the case studies in The School Food Revolution would also benefit from including specific Asian or South American examples.

Of course capturing the geographic breadth of school food is a tremendously difficult task. Despite their somewhat geographically incomplete portrait, the case studies in The School Food Revolution are more than sufficient to demonstrate that school food systems are situated in and shaped by national and global contexts. In harnessing the power of procurement the sustainable school food movement contributes to temporal and spatial economic development, participatory democracy, health of citizens and environment. In other words, school food systems are a catalyst for sustainable development and the visioning of culture at the local, national, and global level.

The School Food Revolution highlights many of the consequences of a food system in which food is a treated as a commodity like any other. Much of the school food revolution is a response to damage wrought by the global industrial food system: loss of biodiversity, reduced dependence on human labor, obesity, hunger, and food insecurity. But as The School Food Revolution points out, there is a danger in localism that defensively defines itself by negation of outside forces; this local trap conflates means with ends and may not actually increase quality of food, food security, or decrease negative socio-environmental impacts of different food products. A truly sustainable food system then, such as is sought in The School Food Revolution, mediates both global pressures and local experience with particular attention to social justice, local economies, and ecosystem health. In this way, sustainable school food efforts are reclaiming the power of procurement through a public ethic of caring despite neoliberal rules, regulations, and conventions, which privilege industry and undermine local production through the notion of ‘best value’ neoliberal policy.

The case studies presented in The School Food Revolution show that despite the particular history of any school food system, all are affected by the structural pressures and consequences of the global food system. Similarly, although there are a variety of problems in the world of school food, the approaches to solving them have some important similarities. New York school food reforms, for example, have been health-driven. The system once concerned with children not getting enough food, faced the problem of them getting too much of the wrong food and the accompanying challenge of student preferences for junk food. The solution: accommodate student preferences with school food disguised as fast food. In Rome, school food is a matter of rights to enculturation as healthy consumers knowledgeable about their local food traditions. To support this, the school food system legitimizes the privileging of local food. Quality in this case is multifaceted. In London, school food is an issue of responsible procurement, predicated on labor and health externalities of neoliberal ‘best value’ and the political capital necessary to initiate school lunch reforms. In the rural case studies from South Gloucestershire (England), Carmarthenshire, (Wales), and Easy Ayrshire (Scotland) school food relates again to social justice in terms of labor and health and to local sourcing, but also community development. Lastly in the case studies The School Food Revolution describe international food aid, particularly to Africa, as undermining food as a basic human right, through the substitution of imported food for local food. Here, home grown food school feeding faces the particular challenges of discordance at the many scales of aid governance and instability of national budgets.

The School Food Revolution presents the possibility of a sustainable school food system, indeed a sustainable food system at any scale. Despite the structural and historically particular barriers to sustainable food systems, The School Food Revolution shows that sustainability is possible through an ethic of public care which utilizes social, environmental, and economic dimensions. Doing so addresses the causes of hunger and food insecurity, not merely the symptoms.

Interventions in school food systems come in many forms. Some appeal to the tastes of students even as they try to broaden them. Some reduce stigma associated with food assistance. Others aim to foster connection to locality. And yet, as The School Food Revolution reveals, all successful interventions toward a sustainable school food system will share certain qualities. They will practice ethical procurement, wherein local foods are privileged, but supplemented with organic, Fair Trade, and industrial products so that quality is not irreconcilable with price. In doing so, they will fairly compensate and respect producers and preparers of food. This, in turn, will in turn bolster local economies and population health. This is the power of public food procurement. In these ways The School Food Revolution and its equal attention to the environmental, economic, and social dimensions of sustainability, can serve as a template and catalyst for sustainable community food planning and for sustainable development more broadly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s