No shame in a free lunch

Posted 9/8/21

The other day at the playground, I happened to hear a child describe her lunch that day as a “pizza in the shape of a rectangle.” I caught her parent’s eyes and shared a smile. I remembered …

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No shame in a free lunch

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The other day at the playground, I happened to hear a child describe her lunch that day as a “pizza in the shape of a rectangle.” I caught her parent’s eyes and shared a smile. I remembered that pizza from my childhood!

School cafeterias are open again. After classes went exclusively virtual last spring, federal funds provided counties like Chatham the ability to offer meals on a “grab-and-go” basis in takeout containers. These meals were free to all students. My kids piled into our minivan on several occasions. They loved the hot rolls!

From masks to physical distancing, this school year continues to be different. But cafeterias still have a vital role. About one in four children in Chatham County suffers from food insecurity. Thankfully, schools help to meet their basic nutrition needs.

Free and reduced-price school meals have been an essential aspect of helping children and families for a long time. The National School Lunch Act was established in 1946 by President Harry Truman.

But rather than applying for the federally assisted meals program this year, school lunches are free to all students thanks to The Universal School Meals Program Act of 2021.

Why should this meal program be “universal” for all students?

Sadly, “lunch shaming” is almost as prevalent in schools as that rectangular pizza. Shame can be served by school administrators who refuse to serve students if they owe money.

But more often, shaming comes from fellow students.

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian and founder of Kids Eat in Color, a blog and online resource that “specializes in feeding children and picky eating.” Anderson is also sensitive to socio-economic differences, such as designing weekly meal plans for those with fixed incomes or limited means.

On the Kids Eat in Color Facebook page, Anderson recently cited an example of an 8-year-old saying, “I don’t think school lunches are very healthy.” It is likely that this idea was served to the child at home.

The point is that Anderson disagrees: “School lunches protect millions of children’s brains and bodies from hunger so that they can learn.” Rather than criticizing school lunches, parents can become involved with the PTA and work to include more locally sourced fresh food and vegetables on the menu. But there is no excuse for stigmatizing this essential service. Missing meals can have a negative snowball effect on a child’s health. As Anderson emphasizes, “You have no idea how one comment from an unhungry child to a child at risk of hunger can cause long-term damage.”

But the universal free meal program has come under fire from certain conservative groups. In an editorial in May, the Heritage Foundation declared free meals for all students was “notoriously wasteful.” Yet, the authors failed to cite even a single statistic to support their claim. They have neither facts nor common sense on their side. Even if all meals were free, it stretches the bounds of credulity to assert that all students would participate.

But if the meals were universal, it could very well remove the stigma from those students who truly need the nutrition.

As Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, said, “When the meals are all free, there’s no shame in taking one.”

Sounds very good to me.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”


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