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The Political Economy of School Lunch and the Welfare State: A Historical and Contemporary Examination of Federal School Food Policy and its Implementation at the Local Level


This dissertation’s overarching and guiding research question was: “How are education policies and schools both reproducing structural inequality and promoting educational equity and social justice?” This dissertation explores this broad question through an exemplary case: The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and its implementation in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Three papers, representing two “planes of analysis” (Rogoff, 1995) – the federal policy formulation and local implementation levels – and structured to focus on the interplay between “policy, people, and place” (Honig, 2006), were used to explore this question. Each paper also interrogates 1) how federal policy-makers use education policy (NLSP) to position public schools as sites of intervention for mitigating broader social inequities (food insecurity), and 2) the efficacy of delivery of social provision (nutritious food) at the local level.

Paper one focuses on the historicity of policy through an examination of the historical and contemporary (1930-2010) landscape of the NSLP. The paper demonstrated how the NSLP has served as a quintessential example of the “educationalized welfare state” – that is, the American preference for using education policy to redress broader social problems and schools as sites of intervention and for the delivery of social provision. Furthermore, this paper includes an analysis of the tensions between and the affordances and limitations of federal versus local level policy-making. Finally, paper one considers how the privatization of the NSLP in the 1970s-1990s reflects the dangers of education privatization, which undermines the educationalized welfare state and thus, social welfare more broadly.

Paper two focuses on policy, people, and place at the federal policy-making level. Using the methods of Critical Discourse Analysis and Qualitative Text Analysis, this paper analyzed the discourse utilized by legislators and Congressional hearing witnesses throughout the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) that led to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010 – the most recent reauthorization of the NSLP. This research finds that legislators and witnesses defined and framed the problems of childhood hunger and obesity as both a consequence of the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and children and parents’ bad dietary choices. Furthermore, these problems were considered a moral responsibility of the U.S. government to resolve for the benefit of children’s physical and cognitive development, a critical part of health care reform and long-term public health, and as a matter of national security as well as American competitiveness in the world. Finally, legislator’s discourses led to the construction of the HHFKA as a means for expanding and increasing students’ access to healthier school meals through, for example, mandated, science-based nutrition standards and the provision of universal free lunch in high-poverty schools. However, partisan politics and the tradition of placing social provision in the realm of schools also led to legislators taking away funding from the Food Stamp program (a broad food assistance program) to pay for the HHFKA (food assistance in schools).

Finally, paper three focuses on policy, people, and place at the local policy implementation level. Drawing on data from a three-year ethnographic case study of the implementation of the HHFKA in OUSD, paper three examines the constraining and enabling conditions that allowed California Thursdays – an innovative farm to school initiative – to go to scale across 84 districts in California. This study finds that local level actors developed a “bite-sized implementation strategy” that broke down the process of changing school food systems into small, scaffolding manageable tasks that, through a “progress-based journey,” accumulated into larger systems change. This research also finds that the Center for Ecoliteracy (CEL) in Berkeley, CA, played a critical role as an “intermediary organization” in its use of a “collective impact model” to organize school districts implementing California Thursdays into a network. The California Thursdays network shared resources and best practices through an email listserv, which advanced the initiative’s “co-construction” and ability to scale across a variety of implementation contexts. Furthermore, CEL also positively shaped the discourse of school lunch through the trademarking and branding of California Thursdays, and its use and facilitation of empowering language through the listserv. Finally, this research finds that California Thursdays is reshaping the school food landscape in California and creating broader, cross-sectoral impacts.

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