The Problem With School Lunch: How The Wealth Gap Is Shaming Students

The school lunch is symbolic of America's socioeconomic and food disparities.
As kids are heading back to the classroom, many feel a stigma attached to their free or reduced-price lunches.
Ji Sub Jeong/HuffPost
As kids are heading back to the classroom, many feel a stigma attached to their free or reduced-price lunches.

Atasha Jordan has vivid memories of her school lunches growing up.

“I definitely remember not liking the food,” said the now 26-year-old, who is in the University of Pennsylvania’s joint doctor of medicine-master of business administration program.

“I hate corn dogs, so I would switch with the kids who wanted corn dogs and brought their lunch.”

The kids with lunchboxes packed from home had “way better stuff,” like Gushers and Fruit Roll-Ups, she remembers. From third grade, when Jordan moved with her family from Barbados to Sunrise, Florida, she and her siblings received free or reduced-rate school lunches, depending on the year.

By eighth grade, when the family moved to Newtown, Pennsylvania, because of her mom’s promotion, they no longer qualified for free or reduced lunches, so Jordan’s dad made her lunch most days.

Looking back, Jordan sees her experience in the school cafeteria, first on the free-lunch program and then bringing lunch from home, as a symbol of her family’s upward mobility and the achievability of the American Dream.

“I think it is reflective of the fact that there is a divide,” Jordan told HuffPost. “It represents how a lot of times, you can have people living in the same area with such a mix of different socioeconomic levels.”

Last year, about 30 million students nationwide participated in the National School Lunch Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of those, 20 million received free lunches, 2 million received reduced-price meals and 8 million students paid full price. The school-sanctioned lunch is especially important for low-income families, who often struggle to afford healthy foods.

As kids are heading back to the classroom, many feel a stigma attached to their free or reduced-price lunches. Several incidents of schools shaming children over unpaid lunch bills have made headlines recently, highlighting how the school lunch can be a symbol for the socioeconomic and food disparities that exist in America.

The Cost Of School Lunch

Schools nationwide face a variety of constraints in serving lunch. Meals must meet USDA nutritional requirements, be appealing to students and fit within a usually tight budget, says Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association.

In 2012, new nutritional standards for the school lunch program were implemented to require more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy, and less fat and sodium. Schools have leeway on what to serve within the requirements, and there are no regulations for fresh versus processed foods.

When students choose an eligible meal, which must include a fruit or vegetable, schools are reimbursed by the USDA $3.31 for free lunches and $2.91 for reduced rates, with the student paying 40 cents.

A 2008 USDA study estimated the average cost to produce a school meal at $2.91, but it can vary by region.

In some high-poverty communities, where the majority of students qualify for free meals, all students can receive free breakfast and lunch without their parents having to apply.

For students to qualify for a free school lunch in the 2018-19 school year, family incomes must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,630, for a family of four. Reduced-price eligibility extends to incomes up to 185 percent of the poverty level, which is $46,435.

Lunch-Shaming In The Cafeteria

Adrian Brooks, a ninth-grade English language arts teacher in the North Bronx, New York, sees students’ midday meals as a broader representation of the wealth gap, during which students attribute status to classmates who bring lunch from home or are able to get someone to bring them fast food or takeout.

“They’re sort of gauging each other, as to who has money and who’s [eating] free lunch in the school,” Brooks said.

“Shaming around free lunch isn’t so much overt bullying as an attempt by students to avoid eating the lunch or not wanting to eat the lunch because the stigma attached is that it is automatically not good to them — like, it doesn’t taste good, because to them it’s cheap.”

Brooks, 35, says his experience was similar when he was a student on the free-lunch program.

“In elementary school, nobody cared,” he remembered. “It was just assumed we all got free lunch, and I don’t think anybody thought about it any other way. The dynamic starts to shift when you go from middle school to high school, and you get into these sort of social hierarchies.”

Brooks said there were often two separate lunch lines for those who were paying and those who weren’t.

“If you [could] pay for lunch, you could purchase more desired options like the french fries and cheeseburger,” he explained.

For years, schools have been fighting the stigma associated with school lunches, Pratt-Heavner said. Many have changed their payment processes to be more inclusive and have eliminated separate lunch lines.

“They do everything they can to make sure that the point of sale is not an identifying experience for a child,” she told HuffPost, explaining that some schools have online payment systems, where all students — whether getting free lunch or not — enter a PIN to pay for their meals.

“[Lunch] is the one time of the school day when everybody comes together to share a meal, and that can be a uniting experience.”

Why Some Kids Avoid A Nutritious Meal

“Students need healthy meals for both their minds and bodies,” Whitney Linsenmeyer, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and instructor in the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Saint Louis University, said via email to HuffPost.

Meals at school may be the only consistent meal that some students eat, and school lunch or other nutrition assistance programs give kids access to healthy foods needed for growth and development, according to the academy. In 2016, 6.5 million (or 8.8 percent of) U.S. children and adolescents lived in low-income households that were food insecure.

However, Linsenmeyer said, “Stigma has been fairly well-documented as a barrier to participation in meal programs.”

That stigma stands in the way of many students getting the only healthy meal they’ll be offered all day. The meals served at school tend to be healthier than many bagged lunches, Linsenmeyer said, but of course, that can vary by student.

“I have seen students that bring bento boxes of fresh and balanced meals, students that bring a half-eaten bag of chips for lunch, and students that have nothing to pack from home,” Linsenmeyer said.

A study on schools in rural Virginia, for example, found that meals packed from home were higher in fat and sugar and generally less nutritious than lunches provided by the school.

An Opportunity To Break The Stigma

Around the country, grassroots efforts are popping up to disrupt the school lunch program by incorporating gourmet-esque menus and fresh produce that kids enjoy eating. One such program is Brigaid, founded in 2016 by Dan Giusti, former head chef at the renowned Noma in Copenhagen.

Brigaid hires professional chefs to oversee school kitchens and lunch programs full-time. The program started in six schools in New London, Connecticut, and will add six schools in the Bronx for the 2018-19 school year.

“Probably what is the hardest part is making meals that kids really like,” Giusti told HuffPost. “A lot of it has to come down to communication, soliciting feedback, listening to the students, and trial and error.”

The meals are made from scratch, and chefs have tried to cut down on processed foods — for example, replacing chicken patties with whole chicken thighs, Giusti explained. Some of the biggest hits have been cornbread, which counts as a whole grain under the federal requirements, and chicken Caesar salad.

“A big part is keeping it simple and searching out what is going to make [students] happy,” Giusti said.

Making full meals from scratch can be tough for schools, since so many of them are financially strapped. Before Brigaid, Giusti admitted, he was critical of how school programs operated, but he now understands why many choose to purchase ready-made foods.

“Cutting fruit for a thousand kids is a big job that takes time,” he explained. “It takes space. It takes know-how. Even a simple task like that becomes pretty labor intensive. So, there’s no question why schools end up just buying things done already.”

Giusti believes the quality of food can be a solution for ending the school lunch stigma, which he agrees does exist in some schools. He says parents and schools contact him often to learn about Brigaid’s model.

“Generally, I think that the food system shows where there’s [an] economic divide and disparity for sure,” he said. “I think people who have access to quality foods, unfortunately, are the ones that have more money.”

“I think school lunch is an opportunity to break that divide because you’re catering to everyone at one time. So, if the quality of the food was higher, you have the unique opportunity to bring everyone together.”

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