Between Two Ferns with Susan Levine

To start, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your method.  You mention in your acknowledgements that your own children served as an inspiration to start this book.  How did you go from there?  Did you have specific questions in mind? Did you know you would use this time frame, etc?  As grad students it is always interesting to see the decisions scholars make, obviously some things just have to be left out, how did you decide what to focus on and what to leave out?

I didn’t really know where I was going w/ school lunch – and had no idea
it would turn into a book! I thought at first the slp was a New Deal
program but soon discovered the program began in 1946 but had longer roots
in the Progressive Era.  One thing led to another – history of nutrition,
the role of home economists, the role of the Department of Agriculture,
and finally, the relation of school lunch to the Civil Rights Movement.

Since this is a class on food, was it a conscious decision to not talk about what children ate and their experience with the food? Do you consider School Lunch Politics to be a food history?  What defines a food history?  (Are descriptions of food or the physical act of eating/taste necessary?)  What might a history of what children ate/the history of taste in school cafeterias look like- could the politics behind school lunch be muted?

Yes, I specifically wanted to make the point that food is politics –
school lunch is not just about the food kids eat but is tied to a
constellation of political choices and alliances. I think it is impossible
 – or at least misleading – to separate the food that is served in
lunchrooms from the political forces that support the program – and pay
for the food!

Last week we read Tracey Deutsch’s Building a Housewife’s Paradise and she was asked to define politics, I was wondering if you could do the same?  How did the school lunch program shape the way you thought about politics?  Did political trends of the 20th C shape how you thought about school lunch?  What surprised you about the lunch program while you were researching the book?

What surprised me the most were the unlikely alliances that came together
to support a national school lunch program  – conservative Southern
legislators, Northern liberals – later anti-hunger/poverty activists and
food service providers who could provide lunches for large numbers of poor
kids at reasonable cost.  Politics really is  public alliances and choices
– and the power centers   – that make programs possible or impossible.

It was interesting to see how school lunch reflected the contemporary atmosphere throughout the book.  During the Cold War it was about building healthy (white, middle class) citizens and a strong democracy and then by the time we get to Reagan school lunches start being privatized and nutritional guidelines are more about ways to fudge the system (the juice in jam now counts as a fruit serving).  Building off the previous question, did you expect to see school lunches act as a sort of yardstick in this way?  What do these shifts say about how Americans think about race and class?  I think the book gets at these, but what else might you add?  Why is it that diet as a “cultural problem” continues to be part of the discussion about school lunch?

One of the things that intrigued me when I began to delve into school
lunch was finding out that the number of kids eating free lunch is being
used as a general measure of poverty – and a general eligibility count for
other federal benefits/program – and in some cases as a a proxy for race
in discussions of school re-districting.  One of the most interesting
things about school lunch is the way it combines the culture and the
politics of food.

And finally, what are you working on now?  Did School Lunch
Politics influence your new project?  How does thinking about food shape the way you approach writing history?

I’m now working on a history of international food aid – especially the
relationship between voluntary organizations (NGOs in the contemporary
period) and government policy – especially diplomatic strategies and
agricultural policies  – but also the development of ideas about
hunger/poverty and humanitarianism.

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