If your children attend public school anywhere in the country, chances are there are food items sold in the cafeteria that you could never have imagined appearing there when you were a child. While you were served a meal of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots and a canned pear half, today’s children (if they have the financial means) can pay for a meal of processed “kid fare” which has to meet only the most minimal federal standards — chips, ice cream, and (particularly if they’re in secondary school) items like brand-name pizza, breaded chicken sandwiches, Rice Krispie Treats and slushies.
Welcome to the world of “a la carte” food.
What’s this sort of food doing in public schools in the first place? According to Janet Poppendieck, the sale of so-called “competitive foods” (because they compete with the subsidized school lunch) had taken place for decades but escalated considerably in response to Reagan-era cuts in domestic social spending. Suddenly faced with looming deficits, food service directors looked to a la carte foods as a lucrative revenue source to help keep their lunch programs afloat.
The sale of a la carte foods has many negative consequences. Children may make an entire meal of them, often to their nutritional detriment. Second, according to Poppendieck, by offering junk food in the same venue as the regular meal, the school district may feel pressured to keep the federally subsidized school lunch competitive by offering its own version of “junk food” items (hence the prevalence of pizza on school menus).
Worst of all, though, is that a la carte items create a world of “haves” and “have nots” in the lunch room. Students on free/reduced lunch often can’t afford these items, which are generally more attractive to students (especially when they’re branded, like Papa John’s pizza or Taco Bell burritos). Yet, as Poppendieck and many others have noted, in some schools there are actually two lines — or even two eating areas — which visibly divide the paying a la carte consumers from those receiving the regular lunch. The resulting stigma can sometimes discourage free/reduced lunch children – desperate to appear “cool” in front of their peers – from eating the subsidized lunch altogether and instead going hungry. (See, e.g., this article from the New York Times on exactly this phenomenon).
At a June meeting between Houston ISD Food Services and its Parent Advisory Commitee, some PAC members suggested that rather than offering junk food, the a la carte menu could also be a way to offer foods that are more healthful than the regular school lunch — salads, fresh sandwich wraps and the like — but which are too expensive to serve under the federally subsidized program.
When I first heard this suggestion, my heart leapt. Fantastic! No more packing lunches for my two children! I can just hand them a lunch card and tell them to pick up a healthy lunch from the a la carte offerings. But in the car on the way home with a fellow PAC member, we were both hit with the other side of that equation: while there shouldn’t be a world of haves and have nots when it comes to junk food, it’s all the more critical that we not create such a divide when it comes to access to healthier food.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the sale of a la carte foods ending anytime soon, so I’m not saying that more healthful items shouldn’t be offered. But I also don’t want my district to offer these items and then rest on its laurels while the subsidized meal fails to provide the best food possible — for the very students who need it most.