This is a Fireside Chat at Expo East’s Sustainability Summit with Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg at 2:55 at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Information about Expo East, the Natural Products Trade Show, is here.
School food: the cruel consequences of bad school-lunch policy
A reader writes:
Willingboro, NJ School Board has taken action effective for the 2013-2014 school year to discard a school meal rather than feed a student, if their parents cannot, or haven’t arranged to, refill their student’s lunch account.
Take a look at this letter from the school board administrator announcing discontinuation of humanitarian meals:
If a student goes through the food service line and it is discovered that the student does not have the required funds for a meal, the Chartwells Food Service representative has been instructed by the Willingboro Board of Education to withhold the meal from the student, with the understanding that such meal cannot be re-served and must be discarded.
I was appalled by the letter. Hungry kids need to be fed. They can’t learn if they are hungry.
But before going on a rant, I consulted my go-to, school-food guru, Kate Adamick of Cook for America. She explains the fiscal realities of current school-food policies:
The truth is that there are many, many school districts that do not feed kids whose parent will not pay for them. Some, as seems to be the prior practice of the Willingboro district, offer a “humanitarian” meal (typically, a peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk), though that is by no means required of them and by no means universal.
Of course, students who qualify for free meals under the USDA regulations cannot be refused free school meals (provided that the proper paperwork has been filled out on their behalf or that they qualify under other regulatory or statutory provisions).
The refusal to feed everyone, regardless of whether they pay, has become a more pressing issue in recent years, both because the number of families who don’t qualify for free meals but can’t afford to pay for them has increased at the same time the school food budgets have become tighter…Many school districts are truly struggling to keep their financial heads above water….
The REAL answer is for the federal government to provide free meals for all kids. I doubt, however, that will come to pass in our lifetime.
Here’s how this system works:
- Unlike other aspects of school education, the government requires school-meals programs to be self-supporting. They must at least break even or do better, which is not so easy given current reimbursement rates.
- The government reimburses schools for federally supported school meals based on the number of participants.
- Parents often cannot or do not want to fill out the paperwork.
- This leaves schools with a dilemma. If they provide free meals, they lose money.
Some school districts, like the one in New York City, do everything they can to make the system work so that hungry kids get fed. Willingboro’s school board has chosen to follow the rules to the letter, regardless of the effects of this decision on kids in its schools.
Universal school meals would solve many of the problems caused by current school food policies (for evidence, see Janet Poppendieck’s Free for All: Fixing School Food in America).
Ready to join the universal school meals movement, anyone?