School lunches have a terrible reputation. Bland, fried, beige foods. Questionable vegetables. Over-dependence on cow milk (don’t even get me started on cow’s milk). At least there was a cookie, right? School food has made huge strides in the last few years, with more focus on fresh, local produce, and recipe development. While it’s definitely not restaurant quality, it’s on the upswing.
But for a lot of school kids, quality isn’t the main concern. Over 13 million American children live in households that don’t have consistent access to enough food. For these kids, school lunch and breakfast programs can be an invaluable asset. Hungry children are less able to pay attention and more likely to have behavioral problems in school. Ever been in a lunchtime meeting full of hangry adults? Imagine that every day in a classroom. School lunch helps bridge the gap for some of our most vulnerable children.
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides reduced- and no-cost meals to school children throughout the country. Families who make up to 185 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible for reduced or free lunch. A few years ago, the program was expanded so that in schools, districts or areas where 40% of families are eligible, or meet other criteria (like being homeless, children in foster care, or receiving other federal assistance like food stamps) ALL the children receive free lunch.
There are also several cities around the country that have implemented these types of Community Eligibility (CE) standards. In New York City, where a city-wide free lunch program is being discussed, only one-third of eligible families apply for the NSLP program. New York already has a program that provides breakfast and lunch in stand-alone middle schools. The increased number of kids eating breakfast and lunch allows the schools to have more buying power, which leads to more local, fresh options. It also reduces the administrative burden of collecting and processing applications and fees.
Nationwide, schools with Community Eligibility programs have 5% higher lunch and 9% higher breakfast participation than schools without CE. Why? There are probably several reasons, but a big one is stigma. Especially at the middle and high school levels, students don’t want to be seen as “different” or “poor.” If everyone can go through the lunch line and receive a tray of food, this is eliminated. No one is singled out of the crowd simply because they got hot lunch. Families may also be reluctant to fill out the paperwork, either because of pride, or lack of understanding, or even just because they don’t know they are eligible.
When I posted this Huffington Post article about an expanding free lunch program in Baltimore, I was surprised at the responses I got.
One friend grew up in New Jersey, where his low-income school district offered a culinary apprenticeship program. High school students learned about both institutional and fine dining cooking, while cutting down on the number of cafeteria workers that were hired. The students were paid for their time, and graduated high school with the equivalent of a two year culinary certificate. Though he did (repeatedly) describe the offerings as “prison food” (boxed, canned, and institutionalized), he’s probably the best chef I know, so it must’ve taught him something.
Another friend went to high school outside of Houston. He said that he felt embarrassed about receiving free lunch. It didn’t stop him from eating, but I’m sure it stops plenty of kids.
My niece lives in Florida with her husband and three children. At her daughter’s elementary school breakfast is $2.75 and lunch is $3.50. Every. Day. For one child. It’s easy to see how a family slightly above the eligible income for the NSLP still wouldn’t be able to afford lunch for their kids. And research shows that in middle income families, the food budget is among the first things to be cut when financial set-backs come up. Obviously, not all families will want their children to eat at school, but the choice shouldn’t be financial.
Here are some additional resources:
Facts about the National School Lunch Program – https://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/national-school-lunch-program-nslp
Shouldn’t the wealthiest country in the world make sure all its kids get to eat during the school day? What do you think? Did you eat breakfast or lunch at school as a kid? Leave a comment below.