Kids May Go Hungry to Avoid Stigma of Free Meals

  • January 8, 2009

by Jean Saunders, HSC School Wellness Director

Last July, Kate Houston, Deputy Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services made a presentation to the House Education and Labor Committee where she stated: “I want to reiterate USDA’s commitment to help ensure that no one in America goes hungry.”

Each day, the USDA's National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) serve more than 31 million school children. But I wonder how well the USDA — and all of us who work on school food issues — are doing at ensuring that no child is going hungry at school due to the stigma attached to participating in these free meal programs?

In March of this year, the NY Times reported that, “Free Lunch Isn’t Cool, So Some Students Go Hungry:”

“Lunchtime 'is the best time to impress your peers,' said Lewis Geist, a senior at Balboa and its student body president. Being seen with a subsidized meal, he said, 'lowers your status.'”

The article also stressed that the set-up of the lunch lines is a key part of this issue:

“Many districts have … one line, in the cafeteria, for government-subsidized meals (also available to students who pay) and another line for mostly snacks and fast food for students with cash, in another room, down the hall and around the corner.”

Although school districts have introduced systems using swipe cards or debit cards as a method of payment for meals, to help make it less apparent who’s eligible for the school meal program, high school students know the score. If you’re in the line for a school meal, there’s pretty good chance that you're getting a free lunch.

The unintended consequences of this dual set-up were apparent at the high school profiled in the NY Times article. “A group of classmates who also
qualify for federally subsidized lunches sat on a bench,” it reported. “One ate a
slice of pizza from the line where students pay for food; the rest went
without.”

But, this doesn’t have to be the case. In Chicago, more than 4,000 middle and high school students at the Noble Network of Charter Schools or at Perspectives Charter Schools have no idea who’s getting free lunch. There is only one lunch line. At these schools and a growing number of schools around the country, the same food is offered to students who pay and those who receive subsidized meals.

When more students eat the meals served at school, fewer kids will go hungry. More kids will have the food they need to concentrate, study, and succeed at school. And we will really make strides to accomplish the USDA’s goal for the school meals programs, “to strengthen our country by safeguarding the health and well-being of the Nation’s children.”

As members of the Senate and House of Representatives Agriculture committees of Congress begin their work on the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, I urge them to consider providing adequate resources for the school meals program that will allow school food service directors to establish programs that encourage every student to eat, without stigma, lunch and breakfast at their schools. (If you'd like to take action on this issue, you can add your name to HSC's petition for a healthy child nutrition act.)

Interested in learning more about this issue and the school meals program? Check out some of these other interesting articles and resources: 

  • For the 2007/2008 school year, the USDA spent about $8.3 billion to provide free and reduced-priced lunches for 30.6 million children whose families are at or below 130 percent of the national poverty level, or about $26,845 for a family of four. The program also provides reduced-priced meals for students who are between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level, or $38,203 for a family of four. When student participation in the school meal program increases, the
    school district also receives more revenue to cover the cost of delivering
    its meal program. The USDA provides a reimbursement of $0.23 per meal
    to school districts when students purchase a school meal (in addition to other USDA school meal funding).
  • News outlets from ABC’s KOAT in Albuquerque to News Channel 5 in Cleveland have reported recently on increased school meal participation in their states. I wonder how many students eligible to receive free and reduced priced school meals in these states are actually eating the meals they are eligible to receive?