In his new book, Unpacking School Lunch: Understanding the Hidden Politics of School Food, Marcus Weaver-Hightower explores how the politics of school food shape the reality on the ground—from the kinds of meals served to children to where they’re prepared, and how much they cost. Weaver-Hightower, a professor of education at Virginia Tech, has spent the last 15 years researching school food politics and policies in the U.S., England, Australia, and beyond.
As a self-identified progressive, Weaver-Hightower makes a focused effort to describe in detail the various efforts taken up by conservatives to block improvements to school food, and details how addressing those efforts could lead toward a truly progressive vision for healthy school meals for all.
Civil Eats recently spoke with Weaver-Hightower about what the new school year has brought for school meals, pizza as a vegetable, and how more of us can advocate for better school food.
Can you tell us about the genesis of the book? It sounds like you’ve been working on it for a very long time.
I’ve always thought a lot about food; I was born into a family that had lots of farming in their background, so food was important and cooking was always a ritual. And then school food was anxiety-producing, because there were all those social distinctions that happened in the cafeteria. And I always felt like I was not amongst the “elite eaters,” if you will. My parents didn’t pack me lunch, and if they did, I didn’t have the “right kind” of peanut butter and stuff like that. So, I was always aware of it in my own life.
When I went back for my Ph.D. in education, I studied social inequality. And it occurred to me that so much of my experience in school was related to food—those were some of the best memories, but also some of the worst. So, while I did my dissertation work on boys’ education issues—masculinity, politics, and schools—school food was always on my mind, and I really started down the track in 2007.
Your children started going to school while you were researching this book. How did that change your interest in and understanding of the issues?
In the first chapter of the book, I talk about my son [who was born in 2007] going to school, and that was a great entrée for me into how those politics work on an individual basis. Before that, I was really focused on cafeterias and public policymakers, but when it gets down to the level of actual kids going to actual schools, it becomes much more complicated.
I have two kids, and one or the other is always in the hate portion of their love-hate relationship with school food. So, it becomes ethically complex for me to look at them and say, “I really deeply believe in school food and the possibilities that it has for social good and educational good,” and then have them come home and say, “Lunch was super gross today, can I please pack my lunch tomorrow?”