Tram Pham explores the pros and cons of universal free lunch and ending school lunch shaming.
Growing up in the suburbs of Houston, I was never one of those kids with lunchboxes packed from home. My brother and I received free or reduced-price school lunches, depending on the year. For my part, I looked forward to the sugary chocolate milk and greasy, cheese pizza. As for my immigrant parents, they were just relieved to have less meals to worry about. There were days when I had to wear a red sticker that said, “I need lunch money,” because my lunch account was running low. The sight of the red sticker affixed to my clothes was enough to get my parents to write a check. But this isn’t the case for many families. In fact, school lunch debt is a real problem.
What happened to me is called lunch shaming. It’s when children who can’t afford to pay for school lunch are stigmatized and denied food or given an alternative meal. It’s reflective of the fact that there’s a divide: a food and socioeconomic gap in America. Despite subsidy programs, many families still wind up in school lunch debt. This problem has actually gotten worse: according to a survey of 1,550 school districts, median school lunch debt rose from $2,000 to $3,400 between 2016 and 2019.1 As it turns out, family incomes might not be the best indicator of a child’s food security. Currently, only families with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level ($33,475 for a family of four during the 2019-2020 school year) are eligible for free meals, while those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level ($47,638 for a family of four) are eligible for reduced-price meals.2 But some families struggling to make ends meet are deemed ineligible for the program. Others have a hard time coming up with the reduced-price co-pay. Others can’t figure out the paperwork or are worried about bringing attention to their immigration status. In short, this formula isn’t working.
I sat down (over Zoom) with Jennifer Gaddis, author of The Labor of Lunch and assistant professor of civil society and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to chat about school lunch shaming–and why it happens in the first place. According to Dr. Gaddis, “It’s a challenging environment [for schools].” School districts aren’t allowed to use federal funds to pay off student meal debt, so they’re forced to look to charitable contributions or general education funds to cover costs.3 That’s why schools put so much pressure on families to pay outstanding balances. “Cafeteria workers don’t like having to treat kids differently. It’s a real emotional strain on them.” I don’t doubt that schools are trying their best. My brother, an 8th grader at Cook Middle School in Houston, told me schools in his district don’t give out red stickers anymore. “They’ll still let you eat. You just can’t get any chips,” he says. Texas is among eleven states that have passed anti-lunch shaming legislation.4 The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2019 is currently in its first stages in Congress.5 While this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t address the underlying issue of school lunch debt. And that’s the injustice of it all–the burden of knowing you’re a free lunch kid and wishing you weren’t. As long as children are categorized based on family incomes, there will always be shame in the cafeteria. The obvious solution to Dr. Gaddis, and other nutrition advocates, is a simple one: universal school meals.
This idea is not a novel one, and evidence suggests that it’s an effective plan. Currently, school districts with a high percentage (40% or more) of students that qualify as low-income are allowed to serve free breakfast and lunch under the Community Eligibility Provision.6 In 2019, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar introduced the Universal School Meals Act, which would provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to all students.7 I spoke with Bettina Elias Siegel, a school food advocate and author, who has written extensively about school food issues. In an email exchange, she urges that “we should start treating school meals as just another integral part of the school day, like gym class and bus service.” In fact, studies show that students with access to free breakfast have better attendance rates and academic performance in school,8 and students with access to universal school meals have improved health outcomes.9 Given that we provide free schooling for students, perhaps we should rethink how we feed them as well.
But is there such a thing as a free lunch? In short, no. Parke Wilde, an associate professor and food economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, estimates that universal school meals would cost the federal government several billion dollars. This would be on top of the $13.8 billion currently spent on free or subsidized lunches.1 “It’s a big enough expense that it would cost real money,” he says. Though for comparison’s sake, this would amount to just a fraction of the cost of SNAP and far less than the cost of Medicaid and Medicare.10 To support such a policy, funding would have to come from either taxes, reallocation, or deficit spending. That’s what Congress is going to weigh in on. While a Universal School Meals program itself would be costly, taxpayers would be getting a better deal. “Less of their investment would go to overhead and more of it would go straight to good food for the children,” says Dr. Wilde.
But cost isn’t the only concern. School food also needs to meet nutrition standards. Otherwise, school food authorities would be tempted to collect money and serve cheap meals. As Dr. Wilde explains, the key is to provide adequate reimbursement rates for school meals. Then schools wouldn’t have to rely on the sale of what Siegel calls “copycat” junk food to pay for the program. Think: Domino’s, Doritos, Cheetos, Pop-Tarts, et al. If we can accept that feeding children doesn’t have to be cheap, a lot of good things can happen. For one, school districts can focus on giving children more nutritious food to eat. Part of this happens through participation. As more money is invested in the program, schools can better train their workers to serve higher-quality food. “Even if they’re not doing full-on scratch-cooking [due to a lack of infrastructure], they can start by moving some workers to full-time employment,” says Dr. Gaddis. “A universal program that people actually want to participate in goes hand-in-hand with improving job quality for workers.”
Why is this important? Considering obesity’s hefty price tag, we should care about what we’re feeding children. Jerold Mande, a professor of practice at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, explains that there’s not necessarily a lack of access to calories, but a lack of access to healthy foods. And if you are food insecure, you’re much more likely to develop metabolic diseases.11 For many children, the breakfast and lunch they get at school is the only healthy food they eat all day. “The problem is getting people to eat healthier, and school food is a way to do that.” Certainly, from a nutrition standpoint, school food has changed for the better since the passing of the Healthy, Hunger Free-Kids Act of 2010.12 My brother confirmed these sentiments when he assured me that the lunch ladies would never let you leave the cafeteria line without a fruit salad or some carrots. For no other reason, universal school meals would “pay for itself in better quality food and better health,” says Prof. Mande.
There’s no question that a Universal School Meals program would take a lot of federal investment in school meal reimbursement and infrastructure. But it’s a good investment. It’s not just a program for kids who come from low-income households, but a way to feed all kids well and bring them together. School food contributes to healthy kids–and, in the long run, healthy adults. I think about my little brother, who still participates in the school lunch program, and the millions of children who consume food at school every day, and I wonder: what could we do to make it better for them?
Recently, I started volunteering at Blackstone Elementary School, one of many meal-distribution sites in the city of Boston. Though Boston public schools have closed due to COVID-19, their cafeterias continue to provide free breakfast and lunch to all Boston children. At a comfortable six feet, a special education teacher and I work to sanitize tables, set up food (with gloves on), greet families, and tally up meals. As a nutrition student, it’s easy enough for me to advocate for an expensive policy. But as I stand there putting milk cartons in insulated bags, it hits me just how important school meals–and the cafeteria workers, risking their own health to provide them–are to needy families. It shows, on a national scale, just how important it is for children to have access to nutritious school meals. I believe we need to use this moment of crisis as an opportunity to improve The National School Lunch Program in a way that maximizes access in the community. There’s a need to move toward providing food for people on a much broader level. Universal school meals might just be the answer.
Tram Pham is a first-year graduate student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy where she studies Nutrition Interventions, Communication, and Behavior Change. She is particularly interested in writing about federal nutrition assistance policy and programming. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, going on runs along the Esplanade, and sharing good food with family and friends.
- 2019 School Nutrition Trends Report. (2019). School Nutrition Association Research. Retrieved from http://schoolnutrition.org/uploadedFiles/6_News_Publications_and_Research/8_SNA_Research/2019-school-nutrition-trends-summary.pdf
- Child Nutrition Programs: Income Eligibility Guidelines. (2019, March 20). Retrieved from https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/03/20/2019-05183/child-nutrition-programs-income-eligibility-guidelines
- Unpaid Meal Charges. (2018, November 7). Retrieved from https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/unpaid-meal-charges
- Temkin, D., Sun, S., & Lessans, A. (2019, September 25). 11 states have laws that support access to school meals for students with meal debt. Retrieved from https://www.childtrends.org/11-states-have-laws-that-support-student-access-to-school-meals
- Udall, T. (2019, April 10). S.1119-116th Congress (2019-2020): Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2019. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/1119
- Community Eligibility Provision. (2019, April 19). Retrieved from https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/community-eligibility-provision
- Omar, I., & Sanders, B. (2019, November 8). H.R.4684 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Universal School Meals Program Act of 2019. Retrieved from https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/4684/
- Davis W, Musaddiq T. Estimating the Effects of Subsidized School Meal Provisions on Child Health: Evidence from the Community Eligibility Provision in Georgia Schools. 2018;10(7):1-43. https://aefpweb.org/sites/default/files/webform/Davis%20and%20Musaddiq%20(2018).pdf
- Gortmaker, S.L., Wang, Y.C., Long, M.W., Giles, C.M., Ward, Z.J., Barrett, J.L., … & Cradock, A.L. (2015). Three Interventions That Reduce Childhood Obesity Are Projected To Save More Than They Cost To Implement. Health affairs (Project Hope), 34(11), 1932-9.
- US Government Spending Details. (2020). Retrieved April 20, 2020, from https://www.usgovernmentspending.com/
- Seligman, H.K., Laraia, B.A., & Kushel, M.B. (2010). Food insecurity is associated with chronic disease among low-income NHANES participants. The Journal of nutrition, 140(2), 304-10.
- Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. (2013, November 20). Retrieved from https://www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/healthy-hunger-free-kids-act