A La Carte – A World Apart?

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.

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  1. says

    I don’t know what is worse – children aspiring to eat crap because it is a display of wealth, or children being denied healthy food because they lack wealth. Probably the latter but it is a close run thing!
    One of the things which has made a big difference over here is the cashless payment system – either cards with prepayment on them or the more controversial biometric payments (fingerprinting or whatever). Children in receipt of free school meals have their cards topped up by government, better off students have them paid into by parents, or a combination of both. So no one needs to know who is paying for the food and what’s going on with the bank balance at home in order to get a decent meal. But the critical phrase here is ‘ a decent meal’ – all students are offered the same foods. The idea of subsidised food being a different menu from the paid for foods is abhorrent and I wish you well in your campaigns to get that point heard.

  2. bettina elias siegel says

    Joanne: Always so interesting to hear what’s going on in other countries. Here, too, many lunch rooms have an electronic card system to protect privacy, but many schools can’t afford it. And many still have different lines or eating areas for the “a la carte” items.

    Did I understand you correctly — there are no other foods available for purchase in UK lunchrooms besides the “official” school lunch? That would indeed be very different from what goes on in the US.


  3. says

    Here, schools serve school dinners or pupils can bring packed lunches. That’s the choice.

    Some of the larger secondary schools (middle and high schools) offer concession stands with different options in order to increase uptake, and persuade kids out of leaving the site and wandering off to the local chip shop or burger bar. So they might have a main hot dinner, but also a salad bar or jacket potato stand or sandwiches etc. But these are all either run by the school catering staff themselves or, if bought in, then are still subject to the same rules as the school caterer in terms of availability to all students (on free meals or not) and in terms of the nutritional standards. So essentially even where there is innovation in the food being offered, it is the same offering to all.

    The only thing close to offering non school food at a cost is that some schools (more usually secondaries) have vending machines. However these also now have to meet a central set of standards and the once ubiquitous fizzy drinks and chocolate machine is a fast disappearing phenomenon. We have companies (profit making and non profit) who have developed smoothie machines and fruit / healthy snack vending machines and these are gradually creeping in where appropriate.

    So the short answer to your question is yes, we only offer one lot of food, regardless of who is paying for it.


  1. […] Some children who are eligible for free/reduced price meals choose not to take advantage of the program because of the stigma attached to such meals, especially when there’s an “a la carte” line in the same lunchroom offering such “cool” foods as Papa John’s pizza and fruit slushies.  That’s a critically important topic worthy of separate examination, and I’ve discussed it here previously (“A La Carte – A World Apart?”). […]

  2. […] In order to break even under the current federal program, school districts almost universally sell “a la carte” foods in addition to the federally subsidized meal.  A la carte foods tend to be the least nutritious in the lunch room — pizza, fried chicken sandwiches, slushies, Rice Krispies Treats and the rest — but they are desirable and “cool” to students.  Therefore, in general, only those children qualifying for free/reduced lunch will choose the federal meal, creating a stigma so great that many children will choose to go hungry rather than be seen standing in the federal lunch line. (See my post, “A La Carte: A World Apart?”) […]

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