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Food Fight! National Policy, Local Dynamics, and the Consequences for School Food in the U.S.



Food Fight! National Policy, Local Dynamics, and the Consequences for School Food in the U.S.


Helena Carrillo Lyson

Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Laura Enríquez, Chair

Skyrocketing childhood obesity rates in the U.S. have helped fuel mounting public concern about the health and well-being of America’s children. Efforts to address childhood obesity have increasingly targeted improvements to federal school food programs. Such programs provide critical nutrition to hundreds of thousands of children, including many low-income, minority youth who have been disproportionately affected by obesity. In particular, the landmark 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) marked the first substantial changes to federal school food policy in recent years, including stricter nutritional requirements for all foods served in schools. In addition, a growing, grassroots farm to school (FTS) movement, which seeks to improve student access to and consumption of fresh, healthy foods, has taken hold in cafeterias throughout the country. It is against this backdrop of dramatic changes to federal policy and widespread school food reform efforts that this dissertation explores how both top-down federal policies and bottom-up, local dynamics have affected the nature and quality of school food programs at both national and local levels. More specifically, this mixed methods project 1) quantitatively examines the effects of federal legislation and state-level sociopolitical factors on school food environments across the country as measured by the prevalence of FTS programs; and 2) qualitatively explores how local-level school food program implementation dynamics affect the outcomes of these programs in two case study school districts in California.

Based on a variety of data sources, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inaugural Farm to School Census, the quantitative analysis tests key hypotheses from the policy diffusion literature related to the impact of federal policy and state-level sociopolitical arrangements on the prevalence of FTS programs across the states. My results highlight inequities in state-level implementation of school food programs based on economic affluence, underscoring the need for increased federal funding to poorer states in order to subsidize the cost of FTS programming. The qualitative component of the project draws on 15 months of interview-based and participatory fieldwork in two large urban school districts resulting in a deep understanding of the nuances of local school food program dynamics and outcomes. Building on theories of neoliberalism and privatization from political and economic sociology, and extending sociological theories of social movement activism, I find that opposing operational structures of federal school food programs – privatized vs. self-operation – play a key role in setting local-level priorities for the meal programs on the ground. In particular, privatization effectively discourages schools from exploring the sourcing of fresh foods from small, local farmers and constrains grassroots FTS efforts. Self-operation, on the other hand, in conjunction with parent-activists, a motivated nutrition services director, and community support lends itself toward responsiveness to bottom-up social change efforts that can make school food reform a reality. By combining quantitative analysis of school food programs on a national scale with qualitative analysis of programs in case study school districts, my research sheds important light on the myriad factors that determine the nature and quality of federal nutrition programs on the ground, and what changes are needed to create healthier and more equitable school food environments throughout the country. In doing so, my findings contribute to critical policy discussions surrounding federal school food programs and childhood health.

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