The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s long past time to give every child free lunch at school

Only this will end lunch shaming

Students take part in a Save School Lunch event on Nov. 14, 2019, organized to deliver 1.5 million petitions to the Agriculture Department in Washington. (Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Parents Together)

With the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, nearly 1 million children stand to lose their automatic free-lunch eligibility at a time when families across the country are struggling to afford school lunches. This is not a new problem, however.

Since the National School Lunch Program was created in 1946, it has had a flawed funding model that relies on children’s payments to supplement federal funding. This ultimately puts pressure on local school administrators to go after families with unpaid school lunch bills, or “lunch debt,” to balance budgets.

But when benign tactics for collecting payment like sending notices to a child’s parents or guardian fail, schools may resort to a set of practices widely referred to as “lunch shaming.” Forcing students to wear wristbands or complete chores in front of their peers, weaponizing a tuna sandwich as a “badge of shame,” publicly dumping lunch trays filled with uneaten food into the trash can and preventing students from participating in extracurricular activities are just a few of the tactics that schools have used to pressure families into paying up.

While some states are enacting laws to prohibit lunch shaming, and both charities and individual donors have stepped to the plate to pay student debt, the real solution is one that has been bouncing around for over a century: free school lunches for all children. Only this will remove the stigma from poor children and ensure no children go hungry.

In the 1890s, when experimental nonprofit “penny lunch” programs first popped up in America’s schools, advocates argued that all children should receive free lunches and nutrition education as part of their schooling. But fiscally conservative school board members and critics who worried that free lunches were socialist and would, therefore, teach children (and their parents) that they didn’t need to work hard rejected this idea. This left child nutrition advocates scrambling to keep costs as low as possible, including soliciting charitable contributions to subsidize school lunches for extremely poor students.

A 1916 Agriculture Department pamphlet described what became the “almost universally agreed upon” school lunch structure: School boards would pay for the initial cost of facilities, kitchen equipment and the program director’s salary, but children’s lunch fees and private donations covered food and labor. As school lunch programs expanded in the decades to come, this structure guided them.

This cost-sharing agreement was then codified in the National School Lunch Act (NSLA) of 1946, which established a permanent mechanism for funding nonprofit school lunch programs. The program aimed to “safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food.”

Participation in the new federal program was voluntary. However, any school that opted to join the NSLP — and gain access to federal cash assistance and donated agricultural commodities — was legally required to serve free or reduced-price lunches to “needy” students.

The NSLA specified schools were not allowed to segregate or discriminate against children who were unable to pay the full price of a school meal. But in reality, this provision was never adequately implemented at the local level. Instead, the entire administrative and legal structure of the NSLA was biased against poor people and communities of color.

That was the main finding of the Committee on School Lunch Participation, a coalition of five women’s organizations that conducted a nationwide survey of school lunch programs between October 1967 and March 1968. After interviews with roughly 1,500 people — including administrators, teachers, cafeteria staff and parents — the committee found that just under 4 percent of schoolchildren were “able to get a free or reduced-price school lunch.” Their eligibility was determined solely by “local decisions about administration and financing which may or may not have anything to do with the need of the individual child. And generally speaking, the greater the need of children from a poor neighborhood, the less the community is able to meet it.”

But inadequate support for poor students was only part of the problem. The program also ended up shaming them. One administrator required children to be deloused before they could have a free lunch. Others required poor kids to scrub dishes, serve meals or help with record-keeping in exchange for free lunches.

Parents and allies pushed back. In Cook County, Ill., more than 1,100 people signed a petition demanding an end to the “humiliating requirements” that families were forced to endure to secure their children’s right to free school lunches. In other parts of the country, fed-up parents filed lawsuits and organized random checks to ensure their children’s schools were in compliance with federal law.

While state and local administrators bore some responsibility for this conduct, Congress was also at fault: The NSLA had stipulated that states and local school food authorities were required to contribute $3 for every $1 of federal school lunch aid they received. The idea was that school lunch should be a cooperative endeavor, jointly supported by local municipalities, states and the federal government.

But this law allowed schools to count charitable gifts and children’s payments toward these matching funds, which enabled states to push their public cost-sharing responsibilities onto the private sector — and children.

By the early 1970s, public outrage and coordinated activism pushed policymakers into action. Congress altered the funding mechanism for free lunches, replacing block-grant funding that often ran out midyear with entitlement funding that guaranteed schools would be reimbursed for every free lunch they served and assuming full responsibility for financing the cost of free lunches. But between 1971 and 1974, legislators rejected four bills to provide free lunches for all students out of concern about the potential cost of such a program.

Eligibility would instead be determined by federal poverty guidelines that sorted children into different payment categories based on their family income. Today, students from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level ($33,475 for a family of four during the 2019-2020 school year) are eligible for free breakfasts and lunches, while those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($47,638 for a family of four) pay a reduced price of 30 cents per breakfast and 40 cents per lunch. Everyone else pays full price, typically between $2 and $3.50, per meal.

But this formula isn’t working. The problem of lunch debt has actually gotten worse in recent years: According to a survey of 1,500 school districts, lunch debt rose from a median $2,000 per district in 2016 to $3,400 in 2019.

The solution is the one that Congress rejected in the 1970s because of its seemingly high price-tag — and that nutrition advocates have pushed for since the 1890s: universal free school meals.

Until the United States guarantees free school breakfasts and lunches to all children, regardless of income, there will always be shame in the cafeteria. Sorting students into three tiers of eligibility — free, reduced-price and paid meals — based on family income affirms the harmful idea that school food is “welfare food.” This solution would improve the social climate in schools by making income differences less visible, cause less financial stress for families, better equip students to learn and leave schools with more money to devote to farm-to-school programs that support local farms.

Anti-lunch shaming bills and charitable acts of paying off lunch debt may eliminate the most egregious signs of injustice in school cafeterias, but nothing short of federal legislation guaranteeing all children’s right to free school meals will address the root cause of the lunch-shaming crisis and ensure cafeterias are inclusive, nourishing, educational spaces.