Who are school lunches really serving?

March 23, 2020 by Benjamin Kamelhar

by Ezra Tanen

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) addresses an important social need by providing free and reduced-price meals to 30 million children across 100,000 public and non-profit schools.[1] The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the program, sells excess agricultural products to participating schools, and reimburses schools for meals served to eligible students.[2] Students whose family incomes are less than 130% of the federal poverty line do not pay for their school meals.[3] In the 2019-2020 school year, the USDA reimbursed schools up to $3.65 for each of these “free” meals in the contiguous states[4] while State and local governments covered the remainder.[5] Additionally, the USDA reimburses schools up to $3.25 per “reduced price” meal in the contiguous states.[6] Students whose family incomes are between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty are eligible for these reduced price meals, and along with State and local governments, pay the remaining meal costs.[7] The NSLP is important for children living in food insecure households which cannot provide three nutritious meals every day.[8] Without school-provided meals, these children will likely have trouble concentrating in class, display behavioral problems, and perform worse on tests than their food-secure peers.[9]

However, the NSLP’s persistent loyalty to private wealth undermines the program’s ability to alleviate child hunger. Illustratively, the program was created to stabilize food costs by purchasing excess agricultural products from producers.[10] Since the NSLP continues to purchase food from industrial farms, the program faces conflicting duties to both private producers and low-income children.[11] The NSLP responds to this conflict by catering to private interests and deprioritizing students.

First, the program’s decentralized administration allows schools to penalize indebted students who cannot pay for their reduced-price meals while awarding lucrative contracts to debt collectors. Second, the USDA’s low reimbursement rates and confusing application process force schools to provide low quality food by contracting with private food providers. This piece argues that the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a first step to refocusing the program on low-income children and that it ought to be expanded. School meal programs could protect the interests of food-insecure students against the interests of private wealth only if all school districts automatically enroll students into NSLP.

The USDA deprioritizes low-income students while servicing private wealth by allowing schools to shame students for lunch debt and contract with debt collectors. Many low-income students, including 11,000 in Montgomery County, Maryland alone,[12] have incurred lunch debt because their families are unable to afford their share of reduced-price meals.[13] The USDA’s decentralized approach to NSLP administration allocates decision-making power to individual school districts.[14] This allocation prevents wealthy school districts from paying debts accrued in poorer districts. [15] Furthermore, the USDA provides no guidance on how districts should respond to the lunch debt crisis. [16] Many school districts shame students by stamping their hands with messages reading “I need lunch money,” or replacing their hot meals with cheese sandwiches.[17] Rather than prioritize students’ dignity, or even offer payment assistance, schools contract with private debt collection agencies which profit at the expense of low-income families.[18]

Private companies profit from low reimbursement rates for NSLP meals and piecemeal enrollment in the program. The USDA decreases NSLP funds available to schools by creating a confusing application process that prevents many eligible students from receiving reimbursable meals. [19] Furthermore, since NSLP reimbursement rates lag behind rising food and labor costs, schools use reimbursements and other budgets to outsource food production to commercial food service management companies.[20] These companies profit from lucrative contracts and often serve low quality and highly processed foods that fail to meet student nutritional needs.[21]

Schools participating in CEP resolve these issues by protecting the interests of children. CEP launched in the 2014-2015 school year and allows school districts or groups of schools to automatically enrolls all their students into a free lunch program if 40% of students would otherwise meet NSLP eligibility requirements.[22] D.C. Public Schools automatically enroll students at eighty-seven schools into the free lunch program.[23] New York City, where seventy-three percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price meals, uses CEP to provide free lunches to every public school student. [24]  Automatic enrollment eliminates the burdensome application process while free meals prevent lunch debt and shaming.[25] When all students in a school qualify for free meals, the meal budget increases and the school can afford to provide better meals through economies of scale.[26] Universally free lunch in New York improved academic performance for all students, regardless of their income.[27]

Since local school boards and governments have discretion to implement CEP,[28] the program will not compel the USDA to prioritize students over private wealth in every school. New York City significantly lessened hardships for more than a million children by ending lunch debt, ensuring all eligible students receive free or reduced-price lunch, and increasing resources available for school meal programs.[29] However, States, local governments, and school boards implement CEP incrementally, if at all.[30] Students attending schools in localities resisting CEP  or wealthy neighborhoods and districts are still unable to access universally free meals. For example, many D.C. students still attend schools that do not use CEP.[31] Meal programs at these schools will still favor debt collectors and food service management companies over the health and wellbeing of students. The USDA could serve the needs of children only by providing free meals to all students, even where local authorities cannot, or will not, implement CEP.

[1] Ilana L. Linder, “Hangry” for School Lunch Guidance, 48 J.L. & EDUC. 215, 215 (2019), Anna Karnaze, You Are Where You Eat: Discrimination in the National School Lunch Program, 113 NW. U. L. REV. 629, 633 (2018).

[2] Karnaze, supra note 1, at 633.

[3] Id. at 634.

[4] National School Lunch, Special Milk, and School Breakfast Programs, National Average Payments/Maximum Reimbursement Rates, 84 Fed. Reg. 38,590, 38,593 (Aug. 7, 2019).

[5] See Congressional Research Serv., R43783, School Meals Programs and Other USDA Child Nutrition Programs: A Primer 5 (2019), Sch. Nutrition Assoc., State School Meal Mandates and Reimbursements Report: School Year 2017-2018 1 (2019).

[6] National School Lunch, Special Milk, and School Breakfast Programs, National Average Payments/Maximum Reimbursement Rates, 84 Fed. Reg. 38,590, 38,593 (Aug. 7, 2019).

[7] Karnaze, supra note 1, at 634, Zoë Neuberger & Tina Fritz Naiman, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Who Benefits from Federal Subsidies for Free and Reduced Price School Meals? (2010), https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/1-29-10fa.pdf; See Congressional Research Serv., supra note 5, at 5, Sch. Nutrition Assoc., supra note 5, at 1.

[8] See Facts About Child Hunger in America, No Kid Hungry, https://www.nokidhungry.org/who-we-are/hunger-facts (last visited Dec. 24, 2019).

[9] See Madeleine Levin & Jessie Hewins, Universal Free School Meals: Ensuring That All Children Are Able to Learn, 47 Clearinghouse Rev. 390, 390 (2014).

[10] Linder, supra note 1, at 216, 219 (2019).

[11] Id. at 217–18.

[12] Heather Long, Hidden Crisis: D.C.-area Students Owe Nearly Half a Million in K-12 School Lunch Debt. Wash. Post (Dec. 28, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/12/28/hidden-crisis-dc-area-students-owe-nearly-half-million-k-school-lunch-debt/.

[13] Levin & Hewins, supra note 8, at 393.

[14] Linder, supra note 1, at 218.

[15] Id. at 216, 232

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 228–29 (2019); Jessica Fu, Countless American Families are Saddled with Student Lunch Debt. Many Won’t be Able to Pay it Off, New Food Econ. (Apr. 22, 2019), https://newfoodeconomy.org/school-lunch-debt-usda/.

[18] Linder, supra note 1, at 228; Fu, supra note 16.

[19] Levin & Jessie, supra note 8, at 392.

[20] Lauren Tonti, Food for Thought: Flexible Farm to School Procurement Policies Can Increase Access to Fresh, Healthy School Meals, 27 Health Matrix 463, 472–73 (2017).

[21] Id. at 475–76.

[22] Levin & Hewins, supra note 9, at 390, 395.

[23] Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) Schools, D.C. Pub. Sch., https://dcps.dc.gov/page/community-eligibility-provision-cep-schools (Last visited Mar. 16, 2020).

[24] Sean Piccoli & Elizabeth A. Harris, New York City Offers Free Lunch for All Public School Students, N.Y. Times (Sept. 6, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/06/nyregion/free-lunch-new-york-city-schools.html?mcubz=1.

[25] Long, supra note 12.

[26] Levin & Hewins, supra note 9, at 394.

[27] Amy E. Scwhartz & Micah W. Rothbart, Maxwell Sch. Ctr. For Pol. Res., No. 203, Let Them Eat Lunch: The Impact of Universal Free Meals on Student Performance 2 (2017).

[28] See U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture, The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP): What Does It Mean For Your School or Local Educational Agency? (2015). U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture,  Community Eligibility Provision Evaluation: Year 1 Addendum 1 (2015) [hereinafter CEP Evaluation].

[29] See Piccoli & Harris, supra note 26, Amy Brown & Janna Bilski, Fighting the stigma of free lunch: Why universal free school lunch is good for students, schools, and families, Ford Found.: Equals Change (Sept. 29, 2017), https://www.fordfoundation.org/ideas/equals-change-blog/posts/fighting-the-stigma-of-free-lunch-why-universal-free-school-lunch-is-good-for-students-schools-and-families.

[30] CEP Evaluation, supra note 30, at 4.

[31] See Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) Schools, supra note 25.