Stigma: a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person (Oxford Dictionary)

I am haunted by the image of one of my children’s school friends whom we’ll call JoJo, for privacy purposes. JoJo and a sibling were raised by a single parent in one of the roughest public housing projects in the city. The kids got free school meals, and they ate school breakfast and lunch every day because, most days, it was the only food they could count on for sure.

Sad to say, even in a country whose farms now produce daily almost 4000 calories per person, there are still nearly one million children who don’t get enough food to eat each day. Students like JoJo really need a robust school meal program, because what they are getting at home may be just cold cereal, with little protein, and no fresh fruit or vegetables, or they may get nothing at all. In any discussion of issues that impact school meals, my first thought is always: “How does this affect JoJo?”

Students like JoJo get to school early on Monday morning in time for the school breakfast, which may be the best – or only – complete meal they have had since Friday’s lunch. All through elementary school, students both middle-class and poor happily line up for their midday meal, without a thought about which of them are getting the free or reduced price lunch paid for by the government.

But that changes when students get to middle school. Suddenly, kids are concerned with their image, their status, their “coolness” factor. In middle school, nothing is worse than feeling like you don’t fit in, and in a society that glorifies consumerism, buying things is “cool,” while having no money definitely is not.

Most American middle and high schools have both the hot lunch line, just like elementary school, and also an a la carte operation offering snack items and other choices for students with money. Anyone with cash can purchase from the a la carte line, just as anyone can patronize the hot lunch line, but for students on free or reduced price lunch, the only option the government will pay for is the hot meal. Thus, the snack line, symbolizing consumerism and choice, becomes the “cool” option. How does this affect JoJo?

Kids start to feel embarrassed to eat the hot lunch, or even to stand near that line, because people might think they are poor, and getting free lunch. The hot lunch becomes stigmatized, and so do the students who eat it. Middle school students who pay for their meals begin to shun the hot lunch line, while those who need free meals become embarrassed to be associated with the hot lunch, because it has become a symbol of poverty.

Students with no money for the snack line may skip lunch altogether, telling their friends that they ate a big breakfast, or worse, make fun of the school lunch, calling it “nasty” or “gross.” This is the stigma of school lunch, popping up like a goblin from a dark hole to do its vile work. How does this affect JoJo?

As Janet Poppendieck, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College, describes it in her book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America: “Stigma simultaneously prevents some students from eating, devalues the meal for those who do consume it - free, reduced, or fully paid - and imposes a burden of shame on students who opt to exercise their right to free or reduced price food.”

For students like JoJo, lunchtime, which used to be so much fun in elementary school, starts to become a stressful time. Standing in what other students disparagingly call “the free line” is embarrassing, and hearing people say that your lunch is disgusting, or “like prison food” makes these kids feel ashamed. Soon, only desperately hungry students are lining up for the hot meal.

By high school, the stigma worsens, and even some hungry students bail on school lunch. Dr. Patricia Gray was Principal of San Francisco’s Balboa High School for 10 years, at a time when Balboa was one of the City's highest-poverty high schools. She says, “Many students would go hungry rather than have their peers know that they were too poor to buy what they want for lunch. There's nothing like knowing that you're poor at home and having it reinforced at lunch-time at school.”

Making the situation worse, some high schools have open campuses and allow students to leave at lunchtime. The a la carte line that seemed so attractive in middle school, when it was the only way to demonstrate that one had money and options, suddenly loses some of its appeal, compared to the glamour of going “off campus” for lunch. How does this affect JoJo?

As Janet Poppendieck explains:

The relationship between a la carte and open-campus options and stigma is a two way street. The availability of the a la carte and off-campus options makes the main line “uncool,” and the “uncoolness” of the main line drives students to the a la carte counter or away from campus altogether. The situation deters some eligible students from taking advantage of the meals for which they are certified, imposes a “self esteem tax” or a “coolness penalty” on others, and deters middle-income youngsters from participating in the main line.

The more students who eat school lunch, the more money flows in to the program to pay for improvements. Unfortunately, as fewer students eat school lunch, revenue to support the program decreases, leaving less money to pay for higher quality food for the students who do still get into the hot lunch line. For students like JoJo, it’s a double whammy - the stigma they must bear just for eating school food, and being dependent on a school meal program which can't improve to compete with attractive outside options, because everyone with money in their pocket is being driven by the stigma to distance themselves from the hot lunch line.

School meal programs are already underfunded by the government, especially in high cost of living areas like San Francisco. The student nutrition department of San Francisco’s public schools estimates that it costs 58 cents more to put a meal on the table than the department receives in funding to pay for that meal. The amount the government provides for a free meal increases each year by pennies, while the costs of food, fuel and labor increase by dimes, quarters and even dollars. When costs to provide healthy school lunches increase faster than revenue, it can put efforts to make the lunch more appealing to all students into a death spiral. How does this affect JoJo?

Lowell High School is an academic magnet school, and despite its location in the southwest corner of the City, it draws students from virtually every neighborhood in San Francisco. Lowell’s students represent the cream of the academic crop from all of the public middle schools; many of these top students come from families of modest means. At Lowell, they mingle with students who attended elite private schools through 8th grade, because Lowell also attracts high-achieving students from wealthy families, drawn by the high quality of instruction and multitude of extra-curricular activities and athletics.

Lowell school nurse Maryann Rainey sees students like JoJo at her school. She has been following the progress of proposed legislation to undo an existing city ordinance keeping mobile food vendors 1500 feet from public middle and high schools, and instead allow the trucks to park one block from schools. She said in an e-mail:

As a school district nurse, who strives to have all students well fed and prepared to learn, who sees the stomach aches and headaches of hungry students, I want the best possible feeding program for students. I do not want food trucks to siphon off the students who have the means to pay for meals.

Status is already important at the high school level. What is apparent to the high school student without funds, is that they are denied the enjoyment and the novelty of eating at a food truck ... To have food trucks within a short distance, within eyeshot of the high school, is to draw away paying students and to leave others feeling ‘left out’. It also leaves the school meal program in a worsening financial situation ... We need to improve the school meal program and fund it better, not allow competition, and not backtrack from hard won improvements.


How would bringing mobile food vendors closer to schools affect JoJo? You be the judge.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. She supported the passage of San Francisco's existing ordinance keeping food trucks 1500 feet from public middle and high schools during the day. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.