Seven years ago, low income students at a typical San Francisco high school lined up for a free lunch of corn dogs and canned peaches, while their classmates with a few bucks to spend bought soda and potato chips in a separate snack bar line. Cafeteria meals in the SFUSD have improved vastly since 2003, and now feature brown rice, whole grain bread, whole wheat pizza and pasta, fresh fruit, and salad bars. Even though junk foods like soda and chips are no longer sold at school, the traditional system of serving free meals in one line, while selling snacks to those with cash in another, has continued.
Although students say they like the new food better, and some higher income students choose to buy the hot lunch, for years there has been a stigma associated with eating school meals. The shame and embarrassment students feel when lining up for what their classmates may derisively refer to as “welfare food” discourages some from eating. No matter how healthy the food has become, as dieticians like to say, it is only nutrition if the kids eat it.
The two-tier system of offering free hot lunch in one line, and snacks for cash in another, contributes to the stigma by making both options available to students with cash, while those who rely on their free lunch status can choose only the hot lunch - or going hungry.
Principals report that the stigma of the lunch line seems most pronounced for African American and Latino students. Elementary school children are oblivious, but by middle school, kids figure out that standing in the “free” line identifies you as “poor”, so many begin skipping lunch. The belief that only “poor” students eat hot lunch keeps many students from accessing the food they need to grow and thrive and learn. For them, walking into the school cafeteria is like putting on a big sign that says “I’m poor.” One SFUSD graduate described his daily ritual of getting his free lunch as doing “the walk of shame.”
Advocates for food justice point out that there is enough food produced globally to feed the world’s population and yet still there are many who go hungry; addressing the social and economic inequalities that keep people from accessing food is the driving force behind food justice. Surely reducing or eliminating the stigma of eating school meals is a worthy food justice goal.
For years advocates for better school food, and for food justice, knew that the two-tier system contributed to the stigma, but the school district lacked a key piece of technology that would help create equity. The point of sale (POS) swipe card system, which paying students use as a debit card, but free lunch students also swipe to access their meal, was that key, and thanks to a parcel tax passed by voters in 2008, the POS has now been installed in middle and high schools, and should be in every elementary school by the end of the year.
It is heartening to see that even in the face of one of the largest budget disasters in recent memory, facing a two year deficit of $113 million, the SFUSD is now piloting a new lunch setup - called the Super Choice Menu - aimed at banishing the stigma and removing the barriers keeping all students from having all choices available to them.
The Super Choice Menu offers several lunch options in the cafeteria, and half a dozen other choices in the former snack bar, but all choices are complete meals, not snacks, and all of them are available to all students. Standing in one lunch line or the other is no longer an indicator of a student’s financial situation - anyone can go to any line and get lunch.
As a result, 80% more students are eating lunch daily at Balboa High School, the first pilot site. The Super Choice Menu has opened in one middle school and is expected to be in nearly every middle and high school by next year.
As the SFUSD moves forward with trying to close the achievement gap, which reflects lower income students of color falling behind other students academically, it is vital to make sure students are well nourished while they are at school, because hungry students can’t learn. No child should have to feel ashamed to eat a school meal, and with Super Choice Plus, they won’t have to.
Dana Woldow is co-chair of the SFUSD student nutrition and physical activity committee. Her three children went through the SFUSD from kindergarten through 12th grade.