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.)
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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