A few weeks ago, in the midst of the intense backlash against the new, healthier school food regulations, I received a reader comment on The Lunch Tray’s Facebook page that I’ve been meaning to share with you. The reader describes how her school district took less healthful items off the lunch menu, which most of us would regard as a positive development, but now foods like tater tots have been moved to an “a la carte” line. This means that only kids with money in their pockets can buy these popular items, creating a stark class distinction in the lunch room. Read on:
I’m a resident of Suffolk County, NY and my kids attend local schools in our area. Recently the kids came home informing me that certain food items were no longer available to them. I called our local School Lunch Manager who informed me of new policy changes. The Federal Government subsidizes the National Free Lunch Program, and they changed the Free Lunch kids lunch menus to EXCLUDE “a la cart” items such as tater tots etc. They want the kids to have more fruits, veggies, and grains. Which is great but it limits their choices. Anything else is paid for..so they are LIMITING the kids choices on what they eat because they “claim” it has no nutritional value. Hey I’m all for nutrition but I’d rather my kids sit in school all day happy knowing he/she can decide for him/herself on what to have for lunch rather than them BEING TOLD by the US Government what they can or cannot have vs going hungry because they dont like whats on the menu…Its so not fair. Less privileged kids like those on the Free Lunch Program are being segregated into a group with a stigma, like they dont deserve to eat what the other kids who can pay for lunch choose to have for lunch.The kids tell me the food sucks now lol but they dont see the bigger picture either…while it was a different era for us when us parents were in school; the fundamental rights shouldve remained the same…which is give the kids their choices…the Federal Gov can INCLUDE nutritious items on the free lunch menus while including more choices for them instead of reducing them to avoid social stigmas within the student body of the schools…Kids can be so cruel…Ive lived that first hand…I’m wondering who to contact to protest these changes.
I’ve been writing for over two years on this blog about the economic divide created when schools set up “a la carte” lines. (Rather than trying to create links to those older posts here, I’ll refer you to the “Related Posts” section below.) And it works both ways: a la carte lines can mean that poor kids lose access to less-than-healthy but highly-kid-popular junk food like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and tater tots, and it can also mean that only kids with money can access better food, like yogurts, salads and fresh sandwiches that are only offered a la carte.
That latter permutation has really been sticking in my craw ever since I saw last year a beautiful, made-to-order “panini” bar at a local Houston high school, where the free/reduced population was so high that only a fraction of the kids could afford this a la carte luxury. I’m pleased to report that at our last Houston ISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, our food services director told me that these panini bars and other meal “concept” lines are now (with the exception of four high schools) available to all Houston kids, regardless of socioeconomic level. But Houston ISD still has a la carte lines at most middle and high schools for other foods (pizza, slushies, nachos, etc.) and they seem unlikely to go away any time soon.
As Janet Poppendieck wrote about the a la carte system in her invaluable book, Free For All: Fixing School Food in America:
We would never, I would think, allow a system in which admision to an expensive academic course — one that requires laboratory supplies and equipment, like chemistry – was based on ability to pay. That we have been willing to do this with school food reflects, in part, I believe, our failure to perceive it as an integral part of education
Food for thought.
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