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.
- The current three-tier system is also inefficient, leaving many children who should qualify for free/reduced meals without proper certification. (See my post, “Why Hungry Kids Sometimes Still Go Hungry in American Schools.”)
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.
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”?