April 8, 2021

In this guest blog post, Dr. Janet Poppendieck, Urban School Food Alliance Advisory Council Member, highlights 10 key reasons to support free healthy school meals for all. Professor Poppendieck is the author of Free For All: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press, 2010).

  1. Reduce childhood hunger and food insecurity. An alarming increase in food insecurity among children has been reported during the COVID-19 pandemic. Healthy school meals should be available to all students, including those who may be in need but are not financially eligible under the current rules. — a common occurrence in parts of the nation where the cost of living is high. Providing free meals to all eliminates the inaccuracies in application and certification that have resulted in some eligible children being denied free or reduced-price meals, and it encourages participation.
  2. End school food stigma. When school meals are perceived as “welfare food,” or “poor kids’ meals,” some students in need decline to participate, preferring to go hungry, and those who do participate consume a meal tainted by shame. The stigma derived from the income-based classification of students quickly transfers to the food itself, leading to perceptions that it is inferior, even when the items served are the very same ones that students are purchasing from the corner store.
  3. Terminate “lunch shaming. Ironically, efforts to reduce the stigma associated with free and reduced-price meals have created a new type of shaming. As school systems have converted to electronic systems using swipe cards or finger imaging to mask the distinction between the children who are paying the school meals fees and those who are not, the problem of “low balance” or unpaid lunch bills has led to public shaming of students in efforts to collect money from parents. Some schools stamp children’s hands with a message to parents: “I need lunch money.” Some take trays away from children when they reach the cashier, giving students an inexpensive replacement meal widely known as a “stigma sandwich.”
  4. Eliminate lunch debt. Meanwhile, unpaid lunch bills total hundreds of thousands of dollars annually that must be written off by school food operators, reducing the resources available for food, staff, and equipment and thus the quality of the meals offered. Further, owing lunch money deters parents from participating in school activities such as parent-teacher conferences and exhibit nights.
  5. Remove a significant administrative burden. Distributing and collecting applications for free and reduced-price meals, certifying students for the proper school meals fee categories based on parental income, verifying a subset of applications to comply with federal requirements, and assigning and reporting each meal served to the correct reimbursement category are complex processes that absorbs the time of principals and teachers as well as school food service staff, time that could be better spent on education.
  6. Improve the meals. As participation increases, the unit cost of producing each meal goes down. By removing barriers to participation and eliminating unpaid meal debt,      healthy school meals for all will increase the resources available for food and labor, resulting in better, fresher, more appealing food — and thus further increasing participation. As more students participate, more parents and students will have a reason to get involved in efforts to improve menus and meal quality.
  7. Speed up the lines, give students more time to eat. Studies show that when students are pressed for time to eat, they reach for sweets and carbohydrates first, and often forgo the healthiest foods on their plates. With everyone entitled to meals, schools can experiment with innovative approaches to the lunch hour such as serving meals during club meetings and specialized activities.
  8. Promote student health. School meals are designed to meet nutrition standards and promote healthy eating. In a nation in which diet-related diseases are rampant, food education is widely recognized as a crucial contributor to health. A school in which all students are invited to the table can improve student health outcomes in the present through healthy meals, and in the future by integrating school food with the curriculum.
  9. Enhance learning and academic achievement. Students who eat do better than students who miss meals. Students who consume healthy foods do better than students who pick up a bag of chips and a soda at the corner store. Students in schools with      healthy meals for all fared better on tests than their peers in schools without universal in a carefully controlled study by the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
  10. Foster social solidarity, reduce bullying, promote cohesion. Think of meals at summer camp — a time for relaxation, socialization, and joy. Once the stigma of the association with poverty is removed, school lunchrooms can become the hospitable places that they were always intended to be.

 Urge your Members of Congress to support free healthy school meals for all today.