Unbeknownst to many, schools often have two lunch lines; in one, mostly low-income students stand to receive a free lunch as part of the National School Lunch Program, in the other their peers purchase more appealing “competitive food”, effectively segregating students by income. Some schools also require low-income students to use an electronic payment method at the cash register while their peers pay in cash. This means low income students are easily identified, and often stigmatized, leading many to skip lunch altogether.
Research shows that skipping lunch interferes with a child’s education. Students who are hungry have trouble paying attention in class and retaining information and have difficulty with executive functioning, which inhibits their ability to plan and prioritize.
In our Flunking Lunch report, A Better Course (formerly Campaign for Better Nutrition) and advocacy organization Public Advocates cited survey results regarding the effective segregation of school lunch lines. These practices are not only a detriment to student’s educational success and a social injustice, they also go against the express directive of Congress as written in the National School Lunch Act.
As a result of concerns raised in our report, Representative George Miller (DCalif.), the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Representative Sam Farr (DCalif.), the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, asked USDA to update and clarify its guidance to help schools protect low-income students from identification and stigmatization by their peers. In 2012, the Agency issued new guidance clarifying the responsibility school districts have in keeping confidential which students are eligible to receive free school meals based on their parents’ income.
Locally, A Better Course’s work led the San Francisco Unified School District to eliminate competitive food lunches, and is working toward eliminating cash payment in the cafeteria altogether. As a result, the district has seen more students eating school meals and has been able to improve meal quality and variety. In addition, more students are eating healthy meals instead of some of the less healthy snack options available in the former competitive food program.