Making Healthy School Lunches Free for All Should Be a National Priority

A professor argues we should destigmatize and better shape school meals to provide much-needed support to children and their families.



Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to lower nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program and roll them back to pre-Obama era levels. These actions from the Trump administration signal yet again how low of a priority they consider this program—and by extension the millions of children who rely on it for basic sustenance.

Public health experts frequently lament the calorie-dense and nutrient-poor government surplus food that ends up on school lunch trays, which play a part in the record rates of obesity and diabetes in this country. For the 13 million or more children in living in food-insecure households, school lunch might be the only meal that they will get to eat on any given day.

For those of us who are parents, despite our deep investment in our children’s health, we often don’t have enough time to prepare snacks and lunches that live up to society’s expectations of what constitutes “healthy food.” Recent research has found high levels of depression and anxiety among parents who feel like they’ve failed to provide nourishing meals for their children. My own research with low-income, immigrant mothers in the U.S. has shown that the gendered division of labor around foodwork means that women are disproportionately burdened with meal preparation and internalize feelings of failure when they cannot live up to social expectations.

Internalizing this failure over and over can be disastrous for our mental health. While low-income communities of color suffer from negative health outcomes at rates much higher than the rest of the population, women’s feelings of failure and of being devalued span all races and classes.

Given our constraints on time and financial resources, there’s no simple and easy way of opting out of school meals. It’s a lose-lose scenario: We inevitably feel guilty either for feeding our children the less-than-nutritionally-ideal school lunch or for lacking the time to make them something more nutritious and delicious.

Why do we continue to burden parents with overseeing the provision of healthy meals for children to take to school while staying quiet about the utter inadequacy of the federally subsidized school meals program? A growing number of cities have implemented universal free lunch as a way of improving health and nutrition, and it’s time to make it a reality for every student in the country.

Segregating Hungry Kids at Meal Times

Shaming the children who rely on this federally subsidized program is not our only problem—our schools frequently segregate children who receive federally subsidized meals from those who do not.

Growing up in California, many of my peers were from low-income, farm-working families of Mexican or Central American descent. Our elementary school staff directed those of us with bagged lunches from home to eat outside, while students receiving the free or reduced-price lunch (most of them from immigrant families) were confined to the cafeteria.

Access to wealth in my community fell across lines of race and citizenship, and economic disparities paired with school policies created a physical segregation of brown and white bodies both at lunchtime and the recess period that followed. These early foundations around whom we could eat (and thereby socialize) with set in motion a culture of segregation that regrettably endured into our middle and high school years.

It is by no means a stretch to think that the stigma and shaming surrounding school lunch profoundly shapes the social futures of each and every one of us growing up in this country. And that widespread stigma is one of the main arguments that sociologist Janet Poppendieck makes in her book Free for All: Fixing School Food in America.

Universal Free Lunch: A Viable Solution?

Some U.S. cities have implemented universally free meal programs to public schoolchildren, including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, and most recently New York. With federal reimbursements through the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), these cities have been able to finance universally free school meals at no additional cost.

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Although universal free lunch goes a long way toward improving access to food for everyone, the food that’s served still isn’t sufficiently nutritious or delicious to entice every family to participate. Unless the contents on the tray change—and the recent lowering of nutrition standards makes it significantly harder to make that positive change—segregation around school lunch will continue, as the families with the time and resources to provide home-made meals continue to opt out of the school lunch program.

The federal government has many tools at its disposal to improve the situation across the country. Take the USDA’s Farm to School program, which funds school programs to establish farm-to-institution purchasing to benefit local farmers and improve the quality of school meals at the same time. According to the National Farm to School Network, demand for funding through the program is currently five times more than the amount dispersed each year. We should be petitioning our elected representatives to advocate for redirecting USDA subsidies away from the wealthiest industrial growers—as they just did, yet again, with the 2018 Farm Bill—toward programs such as Farm to School.

School meals have the potential to serve as a safety net for us all. Proponents of school lunch reform in the U.S. frequently allude to the potential health, environmental, and economic benefits of reinvesting in school meals. I would add to this list, and urge reform advocates to explore, the social merits of school lunch reform: How can we shape school meals to better (re)connect us to each other, reinforce solidarities across lines of social difference, and provide much-needed support to everyone raising children today?

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View Comments (9)

  1. Faith Martian
    Friday, December 14th, 2018
    We need to prioritze the health of our children and the future of our country by a new “Healthy School Lunch Act.” From the beg. School lunch has been tied to getting rid of farm surplus. Kids should have the choice of milk, not forced to have it as part of meal, as an example. Kitchens need to have actual ovens, kettles, etc, not just convection ones to heat up corporate made chic, etc. ,also from subsidy programs where the schools pay the corporations to make higher fat, salt products because they cannot. growing veggies and herbs in schools as part of the program. There is so much to be done! And so much that already being done across the nation is amazing!
  2. Lauren Romeo
    Sunday, December 16th, 2018
    It's a good idea but, I can already hear the arguments about socialism and who decides what a nutritious lunch is. Sadly.
  3. Amy Siuda
    Sunday, December 23rd, 2018
    All children participate in food prep, service and clean up using an egalitarian schedule. Rich kids are not exempt, and poor kids are not burdened. Part of education becomes service, economics, labor value and practical life skills.
  4. Janet Wyatt
    Monday, December 31st, 2018
    Our kids are the future. What is more important?
  5. Saturday, January 5th, 2019
    How about saving billions of dollars and put school foodservice completely out of business and use funding to give qualified students and families vouchers to buy their own healthy bagged lunches. Save billions!!
  6. Clayton Perry
    Thursday, August 29th, 2019
    Hi, I'm curious about whether there is any research about how much a national free school lunch guarantee would cost, or if there's been research into this. Does anyone have resources?