Health is not the only currency exchanged for a free lunch. There is a social cost, too. ‘Charity food’ may isolate and stigmatize children in a number of ways, some of which sociologist Janet Poppendieck explains in her 2011 book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America. Again, the program’s history has a lot to do with it: originally, the NSLP targeted all children, regardless of need. During the war on poverty, as the program expanded and became more akin to welfare, the need for straightforward eligibility thresholds arose. Policymakers finally drew clear lines between those who qualify for free lunches, those who may receive them at reduced price, and those who can pay in full (although this designation is misleading – even those eating full price lunches are in fact getting a small subsidy).
Separate checkout lines for those who pay and those who don’t were long banned, but school cafeteria personnel must still identify the students’ meal plans. While they’re not allowed to ask children within earshot of others what kind of lunch they’re having, their trays often make the difference visible. Children getting free meals may not be able to afford the cool candy everyone else is getting from the vending machines cafeterias must often install to help cover rising costs. And in schools with open campuses, those who can afford to purchase their own food may leave the premises, leaving behind those who can’t do the same.
What peers think matters more during school years, and when the prevailing opinion is that only the poor kids eat at the cafeteria, students risk their reputation when they do so. Scholars Rajiv Bhatia and colleagues, writing in the American Journal of Public Health, found stigma was an important barrier to NSLP participation in the San Francisco schools they studied.
The introduction of swipe cards, PIN numbers, and biometrics to pay for meals only addressed the situation partially. If the student’s card has insufficient funds, they must often return their trays and receive a different meal instead. The elimination of vending machines doesn’t seem to be an option for most budget-conscious school lunch officials. And closed campuses are not as helpful either: depending on the cafeteria layout, students may only be able to get free meals in certain sections and end up sitting separately from their paying peers. This is another way children ultimately pay for their free lunch: not in dollars, but in friends and opportunities to bond with their peers.
The problem with free lunch, then, is that it’s not really free. Not even in school cafeterias claiming to serve it. But on the fourth anniversary of her Let’s Move! initiative, first lady Michelle Obama announced new efforts to tackle both hidden costs, the social and the health one, by expanding nutritional assistance programs and limiting food marketing in schools. Perhaps the US is on its way to such a thing as a free (school) lunch after all.