Tag Archives: school lunch

No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch: Part II

Read Part I of “No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch”.

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.

Photo: Rogelio V. Solis (AP Photo)

Photo: Rogelio V. Solis (AP Photo)

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.

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No Such Thing as a Free School Lunch: Part I

On any given workday, over 31 million lunches are served to children in school cafeterias. Part of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutritional assistance efforts, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) aims to deliver affordable and nutritious meals to the nation’s schoolchildren. After all, food plays a key part in helping them learn, grow, and thrive. To reach those who need it most, the federal and local governments work together to offer free lunch to children whose parents cannot afford to pay for it. But money is just one way a meal can be compensated for: the ‘free’ school lunch comes at other costs.

First, there are the health costs. At its inception, the NSLP was not designed as a social program. Instead, it was a response to agricultural overproduction and a surplus of farm produce, writes historian Susan Levine in her 2008 book, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program. The policymakers’ goal was to get rid of excess foods while supporting domestic production. As a result, nutrition was of secondary concern to them: one year, eggs would be on the menu daily; another, they would hardly make an appearance. It wasn’t until the war, when politicians grew concerned about the ability of the nation’s men to fight, and until it became apparent hungry children don’t do well in classrooms they were newly required to sit in, that anyone took a serious look at what kids at school were actually eating.

Photo: Gary Tramontina (New York Times)

Photo: Gary Tramontina (New York Times)

By that time, it was too late. The program was already run like a business, and not even the introduction of nutritional standards helped. Today, these normatives are outdated – children snack rather than eat three square meals, and are less physically active, requiring fewer calories – and almost impossible to follow with the budget restrictions school lunch planners face. The private industry was quick to offer solutions, but is more interested in profits than schoolchildren’s waistlines. Enriched and fortified chips and candies of otherwise dubious nutritional value appear in school cafeterias and vending machines, often a more popular choice with kids than apples. Frozen and convenience foods are replacing fresh meals cooked on premises. And the labyrinthine regulations of meal calorie contents coupled with cafeteria financial realities often mean adding more sugar to students’ plates is the only thing that can bring down its fat content, for example.

The food itself is not the only factor contributing to children’s undesirable health outcomes. Economist Rachana Bhatt, in a paper published in the Southern Economic Journal in 2014, finds the amount of time students have to enjoy lunch also matters. Students tight on time – they must squeeze all getting to the cafeteria, standing in line, eating their food, and cleaning up into their lunch break – might choose to skip the meal, leading them to overeat later, or eat quicker, leading them to consume more due to the delay in feeling full. Even if all school lunches offered healthy options, time would complicate their relationship with health outcomes: Bhatt found students who had less time for lunch were more likely to be overweight.

The lunch may be free when children choose their meal and sit down to eat it, then. But it may come at a substantial cost several years down the line, when a young adult is paying for diabetes medication and visits to the doctor to monitor their blood pressure.

Read Part II of “No Such Thing as s Free School Lunch”.

This post was republished at Sociological Images and The Pacific Standard.

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