What Would School Food Look Like If It Were “Free for All”?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on December 20, 2010

Ever since I started the The Lunch Tray, I’ve wanted to share with you the provocative central thesis of Janet Poppendieck’s book, Free for All:  Fixing School Food in America, which is that school food should be universal and free, regardless of students’ economic need.

Upon hearing this idea, most people shake their heads at the notion that the government ought to pay for everyone’s school meals, even rich kids whose parents have no need for such assistance.  But Poppendieck makes a cogent argument for universal school food and I’ll do my best to briefly summarize it here (although this post is hardly a substitute for reading her excellent book).

Problems With the Current System

Under our current school food program, the government has created three tiers of students: those who pay the full price (set by the district), and those who get the meal for a reduced price or for free due to economic need.  Although this system seems sensible on its face, it has resulted in a number of unintended negative consequences.  Here are just a few:

  • 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?”)
  • The administrative costs of the three tier system are huge.  Poppendieck cites one study which indicates that if the system were abolished in favor of universal meals, $798 million could be saved annually and it’s possible that the savings might even be greater than that.

Benefits of a Universal Program

Here are just a few of the benefits that Poppendieck believes would ensue under a universal, free lunch program.  Universal, free lunch would:

  • eliminate the financial need for school districts to sell a la carte foods.  And with children no longer being perceived as little “consumers” with money in their pocket, schools will no longer have to give in to the idea (right or wrong) that kids’ palates must be satisfied daily with real or pseudo-junk food.  If pizza, etc. is no longer a daily option, it would be that much easier for more healthful foods to gain student acceptance.
  • be consistent with our democratic principles.  As Poppendieck notes, “We would never . . .  allow a system in which admission to an expensive academic course – one that requires laboratory supplies and equipment, like chemistry — was based on ability to pay.”  So, too, she argues, a healthful lunch should be considered an integral part of public education, and therefore offered to all without discrimination based on need.
  • create a sense of hospitality and community in schools, in that everyone, rich and poor, would sit down to eat the same meal together.
  • create an ideal learning environment for teaching healthful eating habits in that, as noted above, children and faculty would be sharing the same, more healthful meal together, and information about those healthful meals could be integrated into the curriculum.
  • benefit a huge number of families that are currently just above the “reduced price” line, unable to qualify for financial assistance but still very much in need of it.

How Can We Afford to Pay for Universal, Free School Food?

Universal, free lunch would, of course, come with a price, which Poppendieck estimates to be about $12 billion annually.  (By way of comparison, she notes that this figure equals about one month of the 2009 expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

She  makes the common sense argument that failing to pay for more healthful meals up front will only result in higher health care costs on the back end, and she considers a variety of ways to pay for universal lunch, such as a tax on soda or soda advertising, an increase in the capital gains tax, or by reducing income guarantees and price supports to producers of corn and soy.

My Questions

Overall, Poppendieck’s proposal is very appealing to me.  Here in Houston, a friend described the lunch program at a local private school which follows Poppendieck’s model, in that the same meal is served to everyone, staff and students alike, and, in that case, children are not even allowed to bring lunch from home.  The result, according to my friend, is that children are much more likely to try and accept the healthful options served to them, and the school regards the meal and mealtime as an integral part of its educational mission.

But some questions come to mind:

If we do eliminate the a la carte options that kids so love and introduced a single, healthful menu for all students, I wonder whether students on open campuses (i.e., most high schools) who previously had the money to buy those foods would simply leave the program altogether and go elsewhere for their pizza and fries (as many already do).  And if that’s the case, would the same stigma still exist for those students who, for economic reasons, must stay behind to eat the universal, free meal?

The bigger question, of course, is the whether the political will exists to support the passage of such a program.  Given all the “socialism” and “Big Government” rhetoric during the Obama health care debate, and given how hard it was to squeeze a mere six-cent-per-meal increase out of Congress in the latest CNA reauthorization, I would say the answer is, unfortunately, a resounding “no.”

But that may change with time.  As childhood obesity rates continue to rise (as I fear they will), and as we start to see ever more clearly the ill health effects of our current school food regime (replete with its a la carte junk), as well as our current agricultural policies, maybe our society will eventually embrace the idea of universal, free school food.

What do you think of the idea of school lunch that’s “free for all”?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine Stutz December 20, 2010 at 3:54 pm

I work for a food service provider, SAGE Dining Services, which serves independent schools around the nation, and that is the model we encourage in our schools. We have found that kids will eat much more nutritious food when the unhealthy alternatives aren’t available. And they enjoy it! It’s likely that the Houston lunch program you referenced is one of ours.

Janet is really onto something. Now, if only we could get school boards and community leaders to think the same way.

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Lisa R Suriano December 20, 2010 at 4:42 pm

I could not agree more with the very eloquent and insightful Ms. Poppendieck! Having spent my career, thus far, (and my entire life) in private school food service, I know this is model is the most healthful, cost effective and efficient way to operate a school food service. With this format, food and meal time is able to become a communal event where real learning can take place.

This was confirmed for me in my visits to both Rome and Boulder Valley School District. In order to make their brilliant program work, Rome mandated that all children must eat in school with NO food from home allowed. To afford the cost of the 5 euro per student parents were asked to contribute 2.50 euro. (allowances are made for families that can’t afford this.) Paolo Agostini told me that there was a protest from some parents regarding this but the city pretty much ignored the backlash and forged ahead.

This was contrasted by my experience in Boulder Valley. While the operation is run extremely well, it is hindered by the insecurities of supporting revenue and uncertainty in how much food to produce (I was told “one day you can have 170 kids come to eat and the next day you only get 80-something). I was also struck by the enormous amount of paperwork and man power it takes to manage the federal reimbursement!

A full participatory program allows for the greatest freedom in what to serve and provides the best economies of scale. To address your question about kids leaving campus for outside food. In my experience, yes this will happen in the older grades because it is the cool and fun thing to do. However, if the food at school is tasty enough the majority will stick around. Especially on the cold and rain days.

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Elizabeth Gregory December 21, 2010 at 8:36 am

Sounds smart. How has the free breakfast for all program in HISD worked out in this regard? It’s not in the lunch room but in the halls, so the dynamic of seeing what others are doing must be different. Are the numbers served growing?

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bettina elias siegel December 21, 2010 at 11:56 am

Excellent question, Elizabeth. I don’t have the answer but will try to find out.

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Viki December 21, 2010 at 12:43 pm

I still have mixed feelings about this model.

I Do see how it could work, IF everyone bought into the idea.
I like the real food aspect. The fact that the teachers would eat the same food as the kids, which is what they do in some areas of Europe now. The fact that there would be no JUNK FOOD available.

It would, however, be extremely hard to wrestle BIG business and Big government out of school lunch and to do this model you really have to go local. (There is just so much money being made by the big guys it would be hard to get their fingers out of the school lunch pie)

Also this model does not consider the kids who have allergies or other food related issues, which would have been a concern in our family.

It would require a change in the way people think as well. A big change. Food is a touchy subject. As we’ve seen on this blog and on Mrs. Q’s lately as well. It would be interesting to see how this could be sold to the American people without it sounding like” Big Brother” Knows best.

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Maggie December 23, 2010 at 10:22 am

Yes, food is a very touchy subject. It’s full of emotional and cultural ties. That’s always part of the debate when it comes to setting up the rules about what the perfect school meal should look like.

While serving meals free to all would clear up a lot of time and energy that’s currently spent dealing with the applications, I do wonder about other changes in the thought patterns if meals were free. Would some think the food would not be good…because it’s free? I honestly can’t imagine a situation where food from home was not allowed at all…allergies have been mentioned. I can think of concerns for cultural needs as well.

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bettina elias siegel December 23, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Totally agree about the no-bringing-from-home thing. It would never, ever fly and even Jan P. isn’t advocating for that. But it’s noteworthy that in two successful programs I’m aware of – the one I mentioned in the post and the one in Rome (as a guest poster described here) both have that requirement.

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