No Tater Tots for The Poor Kids: Socioeconomic Stigma In The Lunchroom

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 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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  1. Amy says

    While I feel bad that there is a divide, I do not believe that the answer to put the tator tots back on the free and reduced lunch program. Remove a la carte lines completely, or only allow regular menu items be sold a la carte. I presume that the writer is melodramatic when insinuating that her children are going hungry because they can’t choose tator tots, but if not that is a separate issue altogether.

  2. Jackie says

    I don’t think we’re doing young kids a favor by letting them “choose” unhealthier and more “popular” items anyway. Junk food does not have a place in schools, rich or poor. Period.

    Treats like pizza and tater tots and flaming Cheetos can be enjoyed at home, away from the learning environment. We all benefit from fewer choices (remember the regular lunch and the “alternate” and…that was it?) Also, rich kids as well as poor kids will equally benefit from NOT being hopped up on sugar, salt, yellow No. 5, and whatever other weirdness is found in processed “popular” foods.

    Good grief!

  3. says

    I have been a Child Nutrition Manager for many years, and all lines in all schools are all reimbursable AND have a la carte items. We do not do any a la carte lines purposely to avoid this type of overt identification. It can be done, even at high schools. We offer some meals at the high schools that cost more for the paid students, but the kids on the program can also have for their meal.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Julie: That’s the way it should be – if you have to have ALC, blend the lines so that you don’t get the issue of a “cool” like and an “uncool” line that kids are embarrassed to stand in, to the point that they’d rather go hungry.

  4. says

    Re: the last quote in the post about never offering expensive academic courses…math and language arts seem to be fee free but almost all the electives in secondary grades have required fees. I don’t know how every school deals with kids who want to learn an instrument but can’t buy a saxophone or want to take spanish but can’t afford a required textbook, want to take art but can’t afford materials fee, etc. The more affluent the public school, the more of these fee-based classes seem to be offered. That limits choice and opportunities too. Is the answer to reduce all academic offerings to the basics? Or is the answer to outlaw requiring fees to what the public school can afford to provide to all that wish to participate? Again, the system needs to define its priorities.

  5. June says

    I just saw the comment/information by LeeAnn B and found it very interesting and disturbing ! I had no idea there were schools charged for instruments or required textbooks! (Our school asks for donations for these things but no one is not given an instrument, text book, place in the chorus if they can’t pay – the only thing that some kids get to do that other can’t afford is long-distance trips.)

  6. Tina says

    I am a teacher in a very poor school district, but I am a mom living in a middle class suburb. I am amazed by the inequalities in education. No, amazed isn’t a strong enough word to describe it. I am appauled and disgusted by the inequalities in education.

    Where I work it is 98% Free Lunch. There is only two choices, that is it. All band instruments, art supplies, classroom supplies even down to pencils, paper, and crayons are paid for out of the district fund. There is no pay to play for sports or for preschool. It is all free. Of course to pay for all that stuff I and my fellow teachers have taken pay cuts for the past two years in a row, almost 20% worth when all totaled up. Many teachers in my district now make so little that they qualify as the working poor and collect food stamps and their children now get free lunch!

    Where my children go to school NONE of the materials are provided. You are expected to pay for everything, band, sports, all school supplies, gift certificates for the teachers mandated by room moms and PTA’s, endless numbers of fund raisers, etc.

    My children have a la carte lines in their suburban schools and it drives me CRAZY!! I send my boys home lunch just about daily, but still, the school encourages them to by snacks and junk food and then emails me a bill and tells me to use my credit card on the school website to pay their “lines of credit.” I’m sorry, if I didn’t send my child to school with money to buy an ice cream, then DON’T SELL THEM AN ICE CREAM using a LINE OF CREDIT!!

    So I agree, take the ice cream, and the chips, and the tater tots, and the pizza OUT of the school, all of the schools, period, the end. No pizza for all, not just the kids who can afford to pay.

    • bw1 says

      ” I send my boys home lunch just about daily, but still, the school encourages them to by snacks and junk food and then emails me a bill”

      To which I would reply, show me a bill of sale, receipt, promissory note, or other instrument with my signature on it, or go pound salt!
      (This assumes you had the good sense to read anything you were asked to sign and the wherewithal not to pre-authorize such sales.)

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      So interesting to hear the differences between your two school systems. The schools my kids attend are more like the ones in your suburb in terms of fees and fundraisers but I believe that no child will be excluded from an elective or activity based on inability to pay.

      • bw1 says

        “no child will be excluded from an elective or activity based on inability to pay.”

        Only as long as you dutifully pass the levies they place on the ballot. Nationwide, districts regularly get punitive when the voters dare to say no to them.

  7. Laura says

    It’s unfortunate that kids should feel stigmatized.


    How is this different than a parent with a limited amount of money for food who goes to the grocery and purchases meat/veggies/grains/etc but doesn’t have money to spend on dessert/chips/treats? (At least, I would hope that’s what the parent prioritizes for their food dollars.) Tater tots are a similar extra, not an entitlement.

    • bw1 says

      BINGO!!!!!! Unless your last name is Gates, or Buffet or Walton, at some point you’re going to have to tell your kid you can’t afford something they want.

  8. bw1 says

    “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.”

    It’s absolutely fair, and a good life lesson in why one should achieve in school so one can afford choices. I used to yell how unfair my parents were, and Dad would say, when you pay the bills, you can make the rules.

    The rich kids get dropped off at school in a Lexus or Mercedes, while the poor kids walk or take the bus. The rich kids have designer clothes, but not the poor kids. Life is like that, and the sooner kids learn that, the better off they’ll be.

  9. Honeybee says

    I work in school foodservice and I see the free and reduced children everyday… believe me, they buy more ala carte items than the students on paid lunch! The vast majority of these students do wear name brand clothing while the students on paid lunches are wearing walmart brand… so go figure? Just because a student is on free or reduced lunch does not mean they cannot partake of an alacarte item! Even parents that do pay full price for the kids lunch cannot afford extra for ala carte items, so they to do without the “extras”. I agree that all the nutritious items should be offered and all the popular items as well and it is up to the parents to make sure they are educating their children on what it the right choice to make! NOT the gov. I know with our system we can enter parent requests on what a child can eat??? So make a phone call!!!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Honeybee: I don’t doubt what you say, but clearly there are cases (and the reader I quote is one example) where poorer kids cannot take part in a la carte. In my district, someone in my food services department described how kids who couldn’t partake in a la carte were getting their photos taken by cell phone in the “uncool” subsidized meal line to shame them, and some of these kids would rather go hungry than be seen standing in that line. That’s a big problem which can arise (but not always, I’m sure) when you set up a two-tier system in the lunch room. More on the cell phone shaming here.

      • bw1 says

        “some of these kids would rather go hungry than be seen standing in that line.”

        i.e. would subvert their basic needs to avoid being seen as uncool.
        That’s the same decision calculus that gets kids into smoking, drinking, drugs, and unsafe sex practices. Better they learn to cowboy up and live without lemming approval now, before those other practices are in the balance.

  10. Cinthia says

    There are lots of misunderstandings about Ala Carte Lines and Reimbursable Meal Lines. First of all the Reimbursable Meal lines are for all students, not just Free or Reduced eligible students. There is no Free lunch line separate from the line a full pay student would get lunch. That is prohibitied by law and would be discrimination.
    Along with the new regulations governing meals for students all school districts will soon be under regulations for food sold outside school meals or ala carte foods. California and Oregon have had these laws for several years as do other States.
    As far as Tater Tots go, the could be included in a meal sometimes, just not every day or the fat and calories would probably be over the allowable amount. It is all in the menu planning.
    I have been Food Service Director for over 30 years, I am also a Dietitian. There are many layers of regulations in Child Nutrition Programs. People not working directly with the programs often do not understand. I do not understand how USDA can make regulations around our programs when most of the people writing the regulations have never worked in or set foot in a School District. More people need to understand the facts before commenting.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Cinthia – I wasn’t sure if this was directed to me or to commenters on the post? I’m certainly familiar with all you say here and hope there was nothing in my post that led you to feel a correction was needed, but either way, thank you for sharing the information. TLT welcomes the input of school food professionals — some have even guest posted in the past – and I hope you’ll continue to come by and comment often.

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