No Such Thing as a Stigma-Free Lunch

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Lawyer argues that state regulation is needed to eliminate local lunch-shaming policies.

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More than 30 million children in the United States receive free- or reduced-priced meals at school. During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal and state governments have continued providing free- and reduced-price meals, even though many schools are closed. But does the federal program that guarantees these meals adequately account for students’ best interests?

In a recent article, attorney Ilana L. Linder argues that increased state involvement would better serve student welfare. States must take on a proactive role, Linder thinks, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has adopted a decentralized approach to providing school meals.

USDA is responsible for implementing the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which provides students with free- and reduced-price meals. Under this program, USDA publishes income eligibility guidelines every year, specifying which annual household incomes qualify students for NSLP participation. USDA also determines the reimbursement rates for schools that participate in the NSLP.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government has authorized certain schools to provide meals for students even while closed by expanding and continuing programs designed to provide meals during the summer months. The Food and Nutrition Service within USDA has promoted “seamless” access to government-funded meals despite school closures—allowing families to pick up multiple days’ worth of meals at a time and waiving many of the restrictions and procedures that might pose obstacles for families seeking to obtain these meals during the pandemic.

Aside from these guidelines, USDA leaves the details about day-to-day lunch operations to the discretion of state and local policymakers. Linder contends that USDA’s decentralized approach to student lunches has resulted in inconsistent practices for the provision of school meals.

This inconsistency comes at a cost for students in need because of various “lunch shaming” practices that schools adopt.

Linder notes that, historically, schools have made students wait in different lines to receive NSLP meals, drawing attention to recipients. Schools also provide noticeably different meals to students with outstanding balances. One school district reportedly served “sandwiches of shame,” made of just bread and cheese, to students with meal debt.

Students may experience bullying and name-calling when their peers notice that they do not pay for their meals or pay only reduced prices. In some states, it is estimated that a third of eligible students choose to skip lunch altogether rather than endure embarrassing and stigmatizing practices.

Technically, federal legislation prohibits lunch provision practices that single out students. According to Linder, however, these prohibitions only apply to students who are enrolled in the NSLP, rather than to all students eligible for enrollment or all students generally. USDA’s decentralized approach, Linder argues, reflects the department’s unwillingness to intervene on behalf of student welfare.

To demonstrate the insufficiency of federal guidance, Linder describes how school districts charged with administering the NSLP struggle to address unpaid meal charges. In 2016, USDA published a policy memo calling on schools to develop and disseminate a policy for responding to student meal debt by July 2017. The policy memo, however, included no details about what this policy should look like, and instead it delegated responsibility to state agencies and individual school districts.

Despite this cue from USDA, one review found that many schools had failed to create a policy about student meal debt. One study of public schools in Massachusetts concluded that a quarter of all schools in which more than 20 percent of students are economically disadvantaged did not have a policy for meal charges in place by fall 2017.

Furthermore, with local schools possessing such extensive discretion, Linder argues that responding to unpaid meal charges can become an opportunity for schools to engage in lunch shaming. One school district has required students with meal debt to perform chores prior to receiving their meal. Other districts reportedly have forbidden students from participating in extracurricular activities until their debts are paid.

Lunch shaming practices are inconsistent with the National School Lunch Act, which prohibits discrimination against students, including the overt identification of those students, for receiving free- or reduced-price lunches. Linder argues that states can and should adopt consistent policies to reduce the use of shaming practices and improve NSLP implementation for all students.

For example, in 2017, the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act went into effect in New Mexico. This legislation requires that schools take steps to ensure that eligible students are enrolled in the NSLP. It also provides schools with specific guidelines for responding to unpaid meal charges. Having specific guidelines in place eliminates the opportunity for schools to identify students in inappropriate or embarrassing ways.

State legislatures can also help improve the NSLP by providing additional funding for participating schools and by requiring that schools clearly communicate eligibility requirements, argues Linder. Alternatively, states can alleviate current shaming practices by adopting universal free lunch programs to provide meals to all students, not just those eligible for the federal program.

Relying on state action could result in local pushback, as state-level policies may fail to take into account variation across communities. Linder recognizes that one benefit of local regulation is the ability of community members who are directly impacted by these programs to get involved in policymaking.

She concludes, however, that the shaming practices and inequalities arising from local regulation justify a shift to state control. In addition, local actors may actually prefer state administration of the NSLP, as state control allows school administrators to focus their energy on other issues facing their students.

Additional guidance could instead come from the U.S. Congress, as members of both houses have introduced legislation that would prohibit lunch shaming practices. Linder contends, however, that state involvement is more feasible than passing legislation in Congress and increasing federal agency involvement in administering the NSLP. Linder argues that it would not be feasible for USDA to ensure that policies are implemented and complied with in individual school districts. Rather, she insists that state-level guidance is better suited for mandating consistent policies to ensure that students are treated appropriately.

Alternatively, USDA recently announced a public–private partnership initiative to facilitate meal delivery and serve students during the pandemic. Although this program is a federal one, states may also seek to participate in these “innovative, community based approaches” to provide accessible, shame-free meals.