Magazine Feature

Why Lunch Shaming Persists

Lunch inequities have gone on for decades, but there’s a clear solution.
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Illustration by Melinda Beck

“Having good food is not a privilege,” Betti Wiggins says. “It’s a civil right.”

As the officer of nutrition services for Houston Independent School District, Wiggins has transitioned the nation’s seventh largest school district away from private food vendors toward a self-operational system that provides free breakfast and lunch to every student. She did the same in Detroit.

Throughout her career, Wiggins has fought hunger. And if you ask her whether her food programs increase test scores or improve behavior, she says that’s a question for other administrators to answer.

“Here’s what I do know,” she says. “I have kids who line up every morning to get that breakfast.”

Wiggins also knows more students are eating school lunches now that the barrier of cost is gone. “So there’s a need out there,” she says.

And, of course, she’s right.

According to the USDA, roughly 2.7 million U.S. households with children were food insecure in 2018. In at least 220,000 of those households, children missed meals, sometimes for days at a time.

Yet, many public schools remain places where children go hungry. When it comes to school lunch programs, many struggling families are left on the outside looking in, shut out by federal guidelines designed to ensure students have at least one healthy meal a day. It’s a system stacked against students experiencing poverty and students of color—and it always has been.

A Recipe for Inequity

Access to these programs is limited by eligibility requirements. One way students qualify for free or reduced lunch is if their family is eligible for federal assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This pathway to eligibility excludes undocumented students and documented immigrants who have been in the United States for fewer than five years. Though these students can qualify in other ways, their families may be wary of submitting paperwork or face language barriers in filling out forms.

It’s not enough to just outlaw the practice of lunch shaming. If the broken system isn’t fixed, students who struggle to pay will continue to suffer.

Students can also qualify depending on their household income. The income qualification is based on the federal poverty line, a flat rate across the 48 contiguous states that fails to account for variable costs of living. This leaves many students—especially those living in high-cost cities—struggling to pay.

In the 2019-2020 school year, for example, a child in a single-parent home qualifies for free meals only if their parent or guardian makes less than $22,000 a year. Two parents each making $32,000 annually and supporting four children have to pay full price.

Despite obvious flaws, when problems in our nation’s school lunch programs make the news, it’s usually not because of these barriers of eligibility. It’s because of lunch shaming.

When students struggle to pay, they accrue debt. Too often, they are then left to fend off the system purportedly designed to protect them. Things shouldn’t work this way: Lunch shaming was supposed to go away on its own.

Five years ago, we addressed this issue in Teaching Tolerance magazine, joining a chorus decrying these practices as harmful and traumatic. In the years since, about a quarter of U.S. states have passed some sort of anti-lunch shaming legislation. The USDA published guidance saying it was wrong for schools to deny meals, make children work for food or mark those unable to pay with stamps and stickers. But lunch shaming is a symptom of a broken system. And until its underlying cause is fixed, it continues to manifest.

In Maryland, a 6-year-old had her lunches thrown away in front of her and her peers and replaced with a cold sandwich after accruing a negative balance of $1.60. In Pennsylvania, a school district wrote families to threaten that children with lunch debts could be placed in foster care. And just this October, a district in New Jersey approved a policy saying students with lunch debt could be banned from extracurricular activities like proms or field trips.

Practices like these are unlikely to stop anytime soon. According to a School Nutrition Association survey, three-fourths of school districts reported lunch debt at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. In 2017, the USDA required school administrators to create plans for collecting debt from students’ families. Even in states with anti-lunch shaming laws, some districts have contracted with debt collectors to go after families with outstanding lunch debt.

The relentlessness with which districts are trying to collect money from students in their care points to an inconvenient truth: It’s not enough to simply outlaw the practice of lunch shaming. If the broken system isn’t fixed, students who struggle to pay will continue to suffer.

“I don’t think there’s a principal in the world who wants us to take a meal away from a student or expose their students to that kind of institutional bullying because they don’t have money,” Wiggins says. “I think it’s the policies of the Child Nutrition Program that say, ‘You are a not-for-profit business, so therefore you can’t give anything away.’”

An Imperfect Solution

To ensure none of her students go hungry—and none of their families are harassed over lunch debt—Wiggins utilized a USDA meal service option called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). The program was designed to simplify the free and reduced lunch application process for communities experiencing poverty. For a school or district to qualify, 40 percent of students must automatically qualify for free meals as of April 1 the school year prior to CEP participation. Once a school or district opts in, all students can receive free breakfast and lunch.

Created in 2010, the CEP is the newest USDA provision public schools can utilize to offer free meals to students who otherwise wouldn’t qualify. Wiggins used the program to implement free meals for all students in Houston ISD and did the same for students in Detroit Public Schools in her previous role. Several other big school districts—Boston, New York City and Chicago among them—have also signed on. Wiggins says she wishes more schools would take the opportunity: The USDA reports that fewer than half of eligible districts take advantage of the program.

Even so, the CEP has seemingly supplanted its predecessor—Provision 2—as the option child nutrition advocates recommend to public schools. Implemented in 1980, Provision 2 also allows schools to serve free meals to all students. However, problems with the program’s affordability and adaptability seem to have contributed to its declined use. In California, for example, more than 1,600 schools used Provision 2 as recently as 2012, according to the state’s department of education. By last year, that number dropped below 700. Meanwhile, the Food Research & Action Center reports that 2,833 California schools have adopted the CEP.

But the CEP has problems of its own. Despite the program’s intent, in practice it sometimes shifts the individual inequities of free and reduced lunch programs to a schoolwide level.

Because eligibility relies on students’ families receiving federal assistance, enrollment in the CEP can amplify some of the inequities already in the system. Qualifying income cutoffs, for example, are lower than those for reduced price lunch. A district serving a majority of students who fall just above these very low cutoffs can’t opt in.

This perpetuates an access gap for those in cities and suburbs, where salaries may be slightly higher but are outpaced by the cost of living. While 45 percent of rural schools qualify for the CEP, only 19 percent of schools in urban areas do. This is despite the fact that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a higher percentage of urban households experience poverty than rural households.

The CEP eligibility requirements also threaten to exclude communities with high immigrant and refugee populations. Undocumented families and residents who have been in the United States for fewer than five years cannot apply for some assistance programs. So even though a school or district may have a clear need, it might not have enough students enrolled in federal assistance programs to qualify. In these communities, if families are afraid or unable to submit forms for free or reduced lunch, then students go hungry.

But access isn’t the only problem. Even for qualifying districts, the CEP can be cost-ineffective. The USDA doesn’t reimburse schools for the full cost of the program; it bases payment on the percentage of students who qualify.

Even so, advocates like Wiggins say, the extra cost for schools is worth making sure each child is fed. After Hurricane Harvey, when Houston ISD became eligible for the CEP, she saw some kids join the lunch line for the first time. Before the school made food available to all, many of these students had been bringing in cheap snacks. They weren’t getting free or reduced lunch, but their families still couldn’t afford to pay $2.50 per child per day.

While the CEP has been a lifesaver in some districts, patchwork policy fixes aren’t enough to mend inequities that stretch back generations. Since the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the first permanent program of its kind, was created in 1946, the system has never served each child equally. Years of segregation meant students of color at underfunded schools were also underfed. By 1963, according to Susan Levine’s School Lunch Politics, the NSLP reached only 26 percent of children of color in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Virginia.

In the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights activists worked hard to expand eligibility to more low-income students and students of color, only to see their work rolled back by Reagan-era budget cuts. Today, underfunded districts are wary of the effects proposed budget cuts will have on programs designed to ensure no student goes hungry.

The number of students eligible for free lunch faces its largest cut since 1981. The Trump administration plans to slice $1.7 billion of child nutrition program spending over the next 10 years—the largest such cut since 1981. The USDA estimates that, under the proposed policy, approximately 497,000 students now enrolled in free lunch programs would have to pay a reduced price. Roughly 40,000 currently enrolled students would have to pay full price.

A Recipe for Greater Access

“The policies that we enact and the efforts that we fund with public dollars are an expression of our values as a state and nation,” says Tia Shimada, the director of programs at California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA).

In October 2019, California passed a law that banned lunch shaming and required hot meals be provided to all students. It’s a big win, but there’s work left to be done.

The law led to more California schools adopting the CEP. Recognizing the state’s extremely high cost of living, CFPA is fighting for all students to have equitable access to school meals. Shimada also stresses the importance of combating anti-immigrant policies that hinder families’ ability to participate.

It’s vital, she says, that “leaders at the local, state, federal levels [enact] policies that equitably expand—and invest in—access to school meals.”

For those who advocate for low-income students, this isn’t a budget question. It isn’t even an educational outcomes question. The only policy solution that addresses decades of a broken system is clear to those who have fought for years to fix it.

“As the adults in the room, we should never accept that some kids and their families go without the most basic of resources,” Shimada says. “Offering meals free of charge to all kids is the best way to meet the needs of more students.”

Wiggins, who studied dietetics, agrees. She knows the system is sick. And changes in one district alone cannot heal decades of inequity in schools nationwide. But she controls what she can control. She serves who she can serve. And she’s clear about what we need.

“Universal meals for all school-aged children is it,” she says. “That’s the paramount issue.”

What Can Educators Do?

As educators and community advocates call for sweeping policy change to address the crises of lunch debt and child hunger, there are things individual educators can do, according to Tia Shimada.

  • Speak with your nutrition services department and district leaders. Let them know what’s working well—and what’s not working—for your students. Be ready to propose changes.
  • Subscribe to news alerts from advocacy organizations. They may have calls to action you can participate in, such as sending letters of support for legislation.
  • Ask your union or professional organization to make school meals a priority when negotiating with local, state or federal leaders about policy.
  • Ask students about their experiences with school meals. What changes would they like to see?

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