Meat of the Matter: Shame on the Schools

Few federal initiatives as straightforward in their intent have been as vilified, criticized and demonized as USDA’s National School Lunch program.

As the department itself describes the program, it is a “federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.”

Here's the surprising fact nobody, especially critics of the program, realizes: The program was established under the National School Lunch Act — signed by President Harry Truman in 1946.

USDA has been providing school lunches to American youth for more the 70 years.

That hasn’t halted activists from demanding that vegetarian options be made mandatory, and criticizing the “traditional” menu offered to kids.

Nor has the program been immune to criticism from the other direction.

Remember back in 2012? New school lunch guidelines were linked to then-First Lady Michelle Obama as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign to combat childhood obesity. The regulations called for fewer carbohydrates, more fruits and vegetables and the substitution of low-fat cheese and chicken, rather than pizzas and cheeseburgers.

It became a meme at the time that Obama was pushing her personal dietary agenda, but in fact, the guidelines were developed by the federal Institute of Medicine (although not sure that body is the best source of nutritional information), and passed with bipartisan support by Congress in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

It didn’t take long for pushback to develop.

In a series of viral YouTube videos, secondary school students all over the country were filmed trashing their lunches, and “Hungry vs. Healthy” captured the controversy: What happens when “healthy” food is unappealing to kids, and they start going without lunch? For young people, especially those participating in after-school sports, eating healthy is important, but so is consuming enough calories to maintain their energy levels in the classroom, as well as on the athletic fields and courts.

Pay to Play
Eventually, things settled down. School districts were granted more flexibility to adjust their menus, and it’s not a leap of faith to assume that many children adjusted to eating those fruits and vegetables that look so strange when they’re not sitting on top of a pizza.

But another controversy still envelopes the School Lunch Program, and it has nothing to do with nutritional controversies or vegan versus meat-based menus — and unlike so many other problems in this world, it can be solved by throwing some money at it.

The issue has been tagged by media members as “lunch shaming,” and it needs to be addressed.

As CNNMoney online reported, the problem results from the fact that when a student doesn’t have enough money to pay for his or her lunchtime meal, “the cafeteria staff in many school districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk.”

Now, given all the rhetoric about proper nutrition, that alternative is bad enough. Heck, that lunch is basically prison food.

But to appreciate the psychological impact on the affected kids, you’ve got to take yourself back to middle school or high school, and remember how horrible it was to be embarrassed in front of other kids. The most important challenge of adolescence is fitting in, and being singled out as too poor to buy lunch is as bad as it gets.

“All the other kids in the lunch line know what’s going on,” the CNNMoney story explained. “Getting that brown bag is the lunch-line equivalent of being branded with a Scarlet Letter. It’s been dubbed ‘school lunch shaming.’ ”

Indeed, and according to the School Nutrition Association, that policy is in place at more than three-quarters of all U.S. public school districts. The association noted that in 2015, a Colorado cafeteria worker was fired for personally paying for a first grader’s lunch. Last year, a Pennsylvania cafeteria employee quit to protest being ordered to take away the lunchtime meal from a student who was $25 in debt.

Of course, virtually every school district in America is strapped for cash, and in some areas, the School Nutrition Association reported that the debts from students failing to pay for their lunches can exceed $4 million a year.

One other fact that impacts the lunch shaming epidemic: Currently, USDA reported that 20 million elementary and secondary students, which represents about 40% of all U.S. students, receive free or reduced school lunches. In 2000, that number was 13 million.

And I can tell you for a fact, having volunteered for 10 years at an urban YMCA, the large numbers of families that could qualify for the Free- and Reduced Lunch option do not even apply.

Why? Because that’s yet another form of lunch shaming, and young people would rather scrape the money to live on snacks, rather than be outed as someone too broke to buy lunch like other students.

Lunch shaming in either form needs to stop.

Society deems an education to be essential to having the chance to be an employed, productive citizen as an adult, and to further that goal, we build schoolhouses, provide books, hire teachers and other staff needed to properly educate children through high school.

Nobody has to pay for their books or subsidize teachers’ salaries, as is true in many developing countries.

Let’s make the provision of a lunchtime meal — whether traditional, vegetarian or otherwise — as important, and as worthy of funding, as any other aspect of public education.

It’s hard enough navigating the adolescent landmines that are part of surviving the K-2 experience.

Let’s not make it worse by calling out kids in the cafeteria.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.