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Protecting food security and fighting lunch shaming

Turning meals into teachable moments and providing free lunch for all
Janet Poppendieck is a nationally recognized scholar and activist. She is the author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press, 2010).
Janet Poppendieck is a nationally recognized scholar and activist. She is the author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press, 2010).

When it comes to boosting the nutritional and academic value of school meals, Janet Poppendieck certainly offers food for thought. A nationally recognized scholar and activist whose work focuses on poverty, hunger and food assistance in the United States, Poppendieck is the author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press, 2010).

She is a founding member of the City University of New York Urban Food Policy Institute, which researches the underlying causes of hunger and food insecurity.

Poppendieck says more must be done to end stigmatizing students who receive free lunches in school because it’s not a problem that will change anytime soon.

“We passed the threshold a couple of years ago where more than half the students in public schools in the United States are eligible for free or reduced-price meals,” she says. 

You’re an advocate for universal free lunch. You’ve suggested that we should provide school meals in the same way that we provide school transportation and textbooks.

Yes. I do think it needs to be free for all.

First, the cost of a reduced-price lunch is typically 40 cents. I estimate it costs us at least 40 cents to distribute the reduced-price applications, collect them, process the data, and so on. We are spending our taxpayers’ resources on identifying kids not to feed for free. It’s counterproductive. It costs more to collect the money than it would to feed everybody for free.

The other reason is, now that we understand the extent to which diet is a huge contributor to lifelong health, we can’t afford to have a half-hour in the middle of the day where we’re countering what kids are learning in health class and in science class.

We need to see the cafeteria as a classroom and as part of the school day. We need to serve meals that embody and teach what we want kids to know about food.

How would that work?

That’s a big question because most education in the U.S. has a long tradition of local and state control. Now, I’m not saying that local school districts should suddenly find the wherewithal to feed everyone. School food is a federal program. It’s been a federal responsibility since the National School Lunch Act passed in 1946.

We do have some mechanisms in place now, such as the Community Eligibility Provision, that allow individual schools, clusters of schools or even entire districts, where appropriate, to feed all children free, if at least 40 percent of the children are certified for free meals. School districts that have implemented the Community Eligibility Provision citywide have reported terrific results.

Ideally, we would recognize that this is a much better way to provide school food, and the federal government would provide school districts with a per capita allotment that would allow them to serve school lunch as a regular part of the school day.

Why have we seen a rise in instances of “school lunch-shaming?”

This was just becoming an issue when I was writing Free for All. It used to be that kids were assigned to the free, reduced-price or full-price category and there were different colored tickets. If you had a blue ticket, the cashier knew that you were free and rang it up in that category. If you had a yellow ticket, it was reduced-price, and if you had a red ticket, you paid.

This made it clear to anybody who had their eyes open which kids were eating free—which led to bullying and ridicule. That system was eliminated in favor of point-of-sale technology. The cashier could instantly categorize the meals for their level of reimbursement, and parents could pay in advance by adding money to an account.

Problems arose when the kid drew down the account before the parent expected it. Or, the parent might simply not have been in a position to replenish the account on the day it was due.

So you began seeing examples where parents owed for meals. School food service departments in large cities were writing off hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid school lunch bills. Then it’s very often principals who have the responsibility for trying to collect this unpaid lunch debt from parents.

The school lunch-shaming arose as an attempt by food service departments to reduce the incidence of unpaid lunch bills. I’ve read how some schools use hand stamps. They’re trying to send a message home, “I owe for lunch,” but once again that sets up the kid for ridicule and bullying.

Many readers probably remember school lunch being a good, nutritious meal. What changed?

The short answer is the industrialization of food. But there are a few components that are specific to the school food story.

One is liability. There were some high-profile cases in which school districts had been held liable for children who were sickened by school food.

One result of that was to shift the liability up the stream. So, if you make hamburgers from fresh, raw meat and someone gets sick, the liability is the school’s. But if you buy precooked hamburgers from a supplier, and all you do is reheat them in a convection oven, the liability is the supplier’s.

A second element was labor costs. As school food workers began to be eligible for healthcare and retirement benefits, they became more expensive for school systems to employ. School systems reacted to rising labor costs by trying to eliminate labor.

A third factor certainly has to do with what kids are accustomed to. As home cooking declined, and kids became more accustomed to handheld, fast-food kind of service, that’s what they were looking for at school.

The Obama administration started the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act to set nutrition guidelines. The Trump administration wants to roll back those guidelines. Does that concern you?

There was a sense of panic among advocates of healthy school food when the Trump administration came in, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. What I mean by that is, health advocates were prepared for a massive rollback. In the end, there were only three standards that were affected by Sec. of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s ruling.

The first one was to allow schools to offer 1 percent fat chocolate milk, as well as fat-free chocolate milk. They were already offering 1 percent unflavored milk, so this just allowed them to offer the 

1 percent as chocolate milk.

The second was the sodium standard. Sodium levels overall in the U.S. diet are so high that to impose what the National Academies of Science regarded as a healthy limit on schools would result in school food being totally out of sync with the rest of the food in our culture—and probably unappealing to many children. So, they adopted a three-staged approach to reducing those levels.

Stage one called for a significant sodium reduction. That has already been implemented nationwide and schools are required to meet it.

Stage two was to be a further reduction, but the Perdue revisions will delay the implementation of that and, obviously, also delay reaching stage three—the National Academies of Science levels.

You can make a case that reducing sodium levels at school is one important means to reducing the taste for salt in our national diet. However, food service professionals will definitely tell you that if there’s too big a gap between what they offer at school and what kids are encountering in the culture, kids just won’t eat the school food.

What was the third standard?

That had to do with whole grain. The standard says that all grain products served in school meals have to be at least 51 percent whole grains. Schools had some difficulty meeting that standard because the market hadn’t had time to respond and those products weren’t readily available at affordable price points.

The USDA established a waiver option, so schools that had difficulty meeting this standard would get waivers. Basically, all the new Perdue standard does is extend that waiver option. Again, I’m not apologizing for it, but I’m saying don’t panic. We are not seeing the total overthrow of the big important changes that were part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. 


Tim Goral is senior editor.