Social Stigma and Social Media on the Lunch Line

Two days ago, New York Times national education correspondent Sam Dillon had a front page story on the sharp increase in the number of formerly middle class households now taking advantage of free or reduced price school lunches for their children, a stark indicator of the nation’s current economic woes.

I subscribe to the print edition of the Times but I look at certain stories online to access to reader comments.  And the very first comment left on Dillon’s story, by a father who recently had to enroll his child in the meal program, nearly broke my heart:

I have read this article twice in this past day, deciding to share it with my child who is on the free-lunch program. We found it nearly shameful to participate since I had , had the where with all financially to support us. My child slinked into school to have breakfast until the very approachable principal started having breakfast himself with the children. Making breakfast no longer an economic mark on the children, verses lunch. Then the awesome principal commenced learning all 1000 kids names and swooping in busing the tables, checking in with the student body at both lunch periods and making certain all kids who were not eating had money to buy food, or he whipped out his wallet and gave them the money to go buy lunch. Later, discreetly helping the student onto the lunch program.

Somehow reading this article and looking over and over at the graphics of the neediest States using the free or reduced lunch program slightly eased my own shame and/or guilt; because I still hardly believe this is our reality. If my parents or grandparents were still alive they would be appalled that I was not self sufficient in raising my child.

Reading the comment carefully, you understand that the father (and child) feel less shame about taking advantage of school meals at breakfast, where the service is universal (available to all regardless of economic need) versus at lunch, where there is often a more visible distinction between paying and nonpaying students, or between students on the federally reimbursable lunch line versus those who can purchase for-cash (and often more desirable) “a la carte” food, or (in the case of high schoolers) between students who can go off campus to buy lunch at convenience stores and restaurants versus those with no money in their pockets.

But a lesser-noticed story published that same day on the Times School Book blog reported that New York City is being forced to cut its Universal Meals Program, which had previously insured that all children at some predominantly low-income schools received free lunches, without demonstrating economic need — and therefore without risking social stigma by taking the school meal.

That’s a tragic development, but the fact that New York City was ever providing universal free lunch at some schools is admirable.  Here in Houston, like most other districts, our breakfast program is universal but our lunch service is not, and our cafeterias offer both federally reimbursed and “a la carte” foods.  Indeed, in a forthcoming Spork Report post I’ll share photos of some new, attractive dining concepts recently introduced by HISD/Aramark — some of which are only for cash payment (i.e., the meals are not eligible for federal reimbursement.)

A new twist on stigma in the lunch room.

Yet because 80% or more of HISD students qualify for free or reduced price meals, I’ve often wondered if stigma is really an issue in my district; in other words, if most kids qualify for federal assistance, maybe there’s less shame in taking advantage of those benefits.  But when I asked this question yesterday at our Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting, I learned that not only does stigma remain a real issue at some schools, there’s now a troubling, modern-day twist on the problem:  on some campuses, hapless kids standing in the federally reimbursable meal line are having their pictures taken by other students’ cell phones, with the photos then uploaded to Facebook and/or texted around the school along with disparaging messages about the child’s economic status.  Not surprisingly, students in these schools are willing to forego lunch entirely, rather than risk this sort of high-tech social ostracism.

Between the cuts to New York City’s universal meal program and last year’s Congressional failure to adequately fund the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, it’s clear that we’re a very long way away from school food expert Janet Poppendieck’s utopian vision of school meals “free for all.”  Maybe we’ll reach that goal eventually, but right now there are kids in American schools going hungry every single day, simply to avoid the shame of taking advantage of free or reduced price school food.

[For more on the stigma issue, here are two prior Lunch Tray/Spork Report posts you may want to read:  “A La Carte — A World Apart?” and “A Follow-Up to the Infamous ‘Cheetos-and-Nach0-Sauce’ Photo.”]


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  1. says

    Okay, I’m about to go all old-school on this.
    I’ve actually taught anti-violence curriculum, with an emphasis on cyberbullying behavior, and I have to say I have had it. UP. TO. HERE. With the cell phones, the texting, the facebooking, the sexting. HAD IT. And my solution is not ONLY to try to “teach” kids to have appropriate online behavior. My solution is to TAKE THE MEDIUM AWAY ENTIRELY.
    Seriously. No child — and I mean NO child — needs a cell phone on his/her person during the instructional day. It’s just. Not. Necessary. Students bearing technology should have to turn in said technology to a secured and locked area at the start of the school day, and sign it out at an approved time only. The rampant impact of these devices goes far beyond the bullying; in many cases, teachers find themselves stuck in a position of policing the devices on top of trying to teach, and that’s just not good for anyone from an educational standpoint — never mind the psychosocial damages.
    I know, I know — removing the devices won’t stop the bullying or the stigma. But you know what? One of the biggest hurdles schools and teachers face in controlling today’s bullying world is the cyber arena. It is MUCH easier to see, stop, and deal with vicious behavior when it is being perpetrated in person, rather than online. I can’t believe we’re so far gone as a society that we can’t even figure out that keeping a tight leash on our children when they are in the care of our schools is not only okay, but is appropriate and necessary.
    And that is my rant for today. :-)

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      EXCELLENT RANT. And, truthfully, I have no idea why these kids can even use their phones at lunch. At my daughter’s middle school, phones must stay in lockers all day and cannot be turned on at all. But discipline is not the same at all schools, certainly, and maybe the rules are different in high schools.

    • Emily says

      I couldn’t agree more! Our kids are required to turn in their cell phones at the beginning of each day. They are put into a bag and taken to the office, where they are locked in a file cabinet. The phones are returned at the end of the day, just before last bell. I just can’t fathom why more schools don’t try to stay on top of this! There’s no possible reason a 5th grader needs a cell phone at school anyway!

  2. says

    I agree with the comment above that there is simply no reason for the students to have the cell phones on campus during the educational day. However, aside from that, I’m horrified that parents are not policing their own children’s cyber-life to know that they are doing that. If the kids are posting to Facebook, the parents should be the child’s friend on Facebook and seeing it too and STOPPING it. What kinds of kids are we raising?

    More on topic…there was a period when we had to receive reduced lunch at school and I don’t remember it being so segregated. We had a lunch card and we bought lunch in the regular line with everyone else and they swiped our card before ringing up our lunch and we paid the reduced rate. I can load a coupon onto my grocery store card from my computer and it automatically gives me the reduced price on that item and nothing else when swiped when I check out. I don’t have to go to a completely separate line to check out just because I have a coupon. I don’t think we’re using appropriate technology here. The economic segregation described here is ridiculous.

    I also find all the lunch choices to be getting a bit out of hand. The schools should simplify the lunchroom, offer everyone the same healthy options, or you can bring your own lunch and be done with it. This A La Carte stuff and salad bars and food court venders and everything else has gotten out of hand.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Hi Jamie!

      Schools are adopting the kind of swipe card technology you describe and we do have it here in Houston, too. So there’s no way a person can tell if you are getting the meal for free or full price based on the card itself or how you pay. And even the a la carte stuff is purchased with a card, not cash. That’s one good way to prevent stigma but there are still segregated lines/areas in many lunch rooms and I was told at the meeting I describe yesterday that often for whatever reason a particular line will come to be associated with poor kids and then no one wants to eat from it. It’s terribly sad. But as for eliminating a la carte, many school districts feel they have to sell these items to stay financially afloat. I’ve seen one study that refutes this notion but I’m not sure how valid it is. I do know my own district seems to feel that a la carte is essential.

      Thanks for commenting here and for the retweet this morning! I appreciate it.

      • says

        I must admit that I’m as horrified by the social implications of these articles as by the nutritional issues of children missing meals. We’re allowing children to bully other children around the focal point of one of the basic necessities of life–Food. What an eye-opening social commentary on the environment of the public school system.

  3. Kate says

    I agree with Bri, and I also agree with Jamie about parents policing the kids’ cyber lives.

    Besides the fact that we are cheap, Bri points out a lot of reasons why neither of my kids have their own cell phones yet. We’ll lend one of our cell phones to our oldest kid in certain sitautions. My 9 year old son has a couple friends with cell phones….I’m not sure why. It is as if they lose their ability to speak when they get on the phone and the conversation doesn’t go past “Dude, wanna come over?”

  4. June says

    This story makes me very, very sad. I am a firm believer in universal lunch (our school used to have it until it was recently taken away). At grade school level they seem to just keep track of who got a lunch and then bill the parents after (if you don’t qualify for free/reduced lunch). So, no one knows who pays or who doesn’t. I don’t know what happens at the middle-school since my son won’t eat school lunch (which he would do if it were healthier and tastier.)

  5. Emily says

    It APPALLS me that there is a segregation with “free lunch” lines and paid lunch lines. In our school, everyone enters the same line, receives the same lunch and checks out all the same. Lunches are deducted from a family account on a weekly basis and those owing money are contacted through a notice sent home with the youngest. No student is aware of another’s student’s account status. I cannot get over the lengths students go through to bully other students. Something has got to change, and not just in the cafeterias!

    As for the father’s comment on the first article, coming from the cafeteria manager at a lower income Catholic school, I WELCOME those free lunch families! Those families are how we are able to serve better food. Our school gets a ton of wonderful commodities that we are able to use from month to month…they really help to stretch our food budget. I understand the difficulty that many have in swallowing pride to provide for your children, but you are truly helping out the school too. We haven’t had to buy pasta, ground beef or cheese in several years! I do wish him the best, though…and I hope all of our situations can improve!

  6. Maggie says

    Just to comment – I suspect that there are not different lines or locations for serving the different eligibility categories. However…if there are a la carte offerings or off site options that the free and/or reduced students can’t afford, and pretty much all the paid students forgo the full meal line, it ends up with the end result being pretty much the same thing…mainly free/reduced students taking part in the reimbursable meal line…which perpetuates the cycle because paid students probably won’t want to participate…

    I have to admit, I had not though of this aspect of school meals until I read Janet Poppendieck’s book, “Free for All: Fixing School Lunch in America”.

    That was when I really started to realize how just complex & multi-layered the school meal issue really is…so much more to consider beyond the food itself and the fact that the issues/solutions for one school quite likely might not to be the issues/solutions for another school.

    I work at an elementary school, with no a la carte, one single meal line, students enter a PIN to “pay”. Accounts are to be pre-paid. The tough part is that some who could likely benefit from the free/reduced meals do hesitate to apply…either due to negative assumptions or possibly personal memories. Sadly, this then sometimes leads to a large negative balance for a student – we continue to serve the same meal to those students – but often do not ever receive the funds for those accounts that are negative.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Maggie and Megan: I certainly haven’t seen all HISD schools in action (indeed, I’ve only been in a handful of lunch rooms, something I’d like to change) but I can say that HISD is currently implementing some “improved dining concepts”, starting (at the behest of our superintendent) at the most impoverished schools. What I saw first hand at one such school last week was that the Tex-Mex lines (the reimbursable meal lines) were out the door. whereas the number of kids on the for-pay deli line (where you can get really nice looking deli sandwiches from a pick-your-own array and even have them pressed into paninis), was much, much smaller. At that school, there’s probably no teasing since most kids could not afford the deli line, but it is troubling to me that we seem to be going down this road at more and more schools of two lunch lines, one of which is not accessible to kids who are on F/R lunch.

      I’ll be writing about this for the Spork Report and will share on TLT, too. This coming week, I hope.

  7. says

    Having been involved in this arena for awhile, I sometimes forget my initial reaction to stories like these — back before I worked in public health. When I first started researching issues related to school food and nutrition, I was pretty shocked to learn about the stigma surrounding school lunches and breakfasts, and to hear about the way that the federal program is implemented in most areas.

    Growing up, my elementary school did have different colored lunch cards and the pink ones represented those with free or reduced lunches (which I’d forgotten, actually, until recently), but there wasn’t any teasing. Everyone stood in the exact same line and got the exact same thing for lunch, regardless of what color card you had.

    In middle and high school, we did have two different lunch areas (all within the same overarching space — just with different food themes) and ala carte items. But all of the non ala carte items met the federal program’s standards, and all of us ate from one of those two areas (since the ala carte items were mostly post-meal items, like ice cream or other deserts). To check out, you entered your student ID number on a keypad. Regardless of what you were purchasing. So there was no way to differentiate between someone getting a free, reduced, or regular priced lunch. Breakfast worked the same way, except there was only one option for breakfast. And there was no teasing or stigma.

    Anyhow, when I started reading about all of the stigma, it was definitely shocking and certainly upsetting. I firmly believe everyone has the right to a healthy lunch — and there’s no reason why we can’t ensure that schools don’t differentiate between free, reduced, or regular breakfasts/lunches in the lunch room. All meals should meet the standards so that all lunches are eligible (and the standards, of course, should improve!) and we should make sure schools have the funds necessary to implement a system where everyone checks out the same way.

    Of course, I think there’s also a larger issue at play here — which is that society shouldn’t stigmatize those who can’t afford breakfast or lunch at school and students certainly shouldn’t make fun of those purchasing free or reduced lunches. I can’t imagine any of my classmates making fun of me for having a pink card, or for not purchasing an ala carte item. But obviously that’s less straightforward to fix.

  8. lindtfree says

    Although the neighborhood where I grew up was mostly solidly middle class, it was near a state university campus and a few small subsidized-housing developments. When I started school, several of my classmates qualified for “free” or reduced-price lunches because their parents were university students! Meal trays were identical, but each of the three cost categories had lunch tickets that looked slightly different. Nonetheless, I don’t recall any stigma, perhaps because college-related poverty was presumed to be temporary: it’s easy to be proud when you qualify for reduced-price lunches and one of your parents is writing a dissertation. It’s harder to hold your head high when you qualify for “free” lunches, along with food stamps, welfare checks, public housing, and Medicaid. . .and don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.

    I didn’t eat school lunch until junior high, when three lunch lines (cold, hot, and unfortunately fries) were available. None were segregated by income. The only “a la carte” items sold, for 25 cents each, were ice-cream treats. As someone whose own weight tended to hover around the upper end of normal, I tried to empathize with our class “fat girl” until I saw her lunch one day. . .not one but two ice-cream sandwiches!

      • lindtfree says

        Sadly, yes. As much as I’d love to blame “ketchup is a vegetable, and so am I” Reagan, the fry line preceded his election by two months.

        Beginning in the 1980-1981 school year, our junior highs and high schools had three lunch lines: cold lunch (usually 6 sandwich flavors, 1-2 salad choices, fruit, juice, and milk), hot lunch (the same tray meals which were the only option for elementary students), and the new fry line. The fry line involved a cardboard boat filled with fries and topped with a fast-food-style sandwich. Each day of the week had its assigned sandwich, and while I don’t remember which day was what, I do recall that hamburgers were served on two days. Roast beef, ham & cheese, and hot dogs were each served on one day.

        When lunch counts were taken every morning, probably 50-75% of the students raised their hands for “fries.” Most of the rest chose cold lunch, and only 1-2 in each homeroom opted for hot lunch unless pizza or tacos were on the menu. Before I began my gradual transition to vegetarianism at age 14, I usually ate the hot dogs one day a week but otherwise selected cold lunch.

        Some students who went through the fry line ate only the fries. A teacher would circulate the “fries” area of the lunchroom, collecting unwanted sandwiches. Some were redistributed to students who wanted two (often older male athletes), but before he went on a diet, one teacher was known to eat a few extras himself.

        The good news: I checked my old school system’s website. Although fries and other potato products certainly benefit the local economy, the fry line is no more!

  9. says

    I survived the Free Lunch Program back in the 70s. There was stigma from students AND teachers. I cannot imagine what the students felt having their photo taken and shared by anyone, much less other students.

    Breakfast at our school is free to all students and a huge majority of students participate, including my son. Lunch costs $1 that I pay for online (which is a huge plus, I might add.) My son’s teacher allows them to bring two snacks to school everyday (and water). They can eat one snack mid-morning and the other at lunch. My son asked to bring extra snacks for the kids who don’t have enough to eat or are still hungry after eating lunch. After reading this article, I am going to reach out to the school to see what we can do to help with reducing or eliminating the stigma associated with the Free Lunch Program as well as getting students who need it, more food.

    Also, good for the principal mentioned in this article!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Lisa: It’s great when I see that older Lunch Tray posts are still interesting to readers, like this one. Thank you for reading it and for the comment. Your son sounds like a generous, sensitive kid and I hope your/his efforts are successful!


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