Child holding school lunch

School Lunch Policy

Issue: Education
Topic: School-based Health
Case Date: January 1, 2008

Read the latest updates


Local Advocacy

In 2008, Public Advocates learned of a troubling practice taking place within San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) school lunch program. The district was in essence operating a two-tiered lunch program, where students who were receiving the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) meal entered one line in the cafeteria, and students buying full-priced a la carte foods entered a separate line. Because so few paying students purchased the NSLP meal, low-income students in SFUSD were immediately identified as such simply by entering the NSLP meal line.

At the request of San Francisco-based Campaign for Better Nutrition (CBN), we provided a legal opinion on this practice and concluded that it violates the National School Lunch Act’s prohibition on the “overt identification” of children eligible for free or reduced price lunch. As a result of our legal opinion, a front-page New York Times article about the problem, and CBN’s advocacy, SFUSD committed to implementing an electronic “Point of Sale” system in all schools within three years, a change that will allow all students—paying and subsidized—to pay for lunches using a debit card. Additionally, the district is piloting programs at some schools, such as Balboa High School, to eliminate a la carte lunch sales and offer a single, more attractive and nutritious meal to all students. SFUSD’s new lunch policies have served as a model for other districts across the country and have provided a foundation for federal advocacy.

Research & Federal Advocacy

Based on the San Francisco experience, the Campaign for Better Nutrition undertook a research project to investigate the prevalence nationally of segregated lunch lines for the NSLP meal versus a la carte foods. CBN’s final report, Flunking Lunch: How Segregated Lunch Lines and Misused Subsidies Are Undermining the National School Lunch Program (October 2009), includes survey data from nearly 200 school districts nationwide. Over one-third of respondents stated that their schools sold NSLP meals and a la carte foods in separate serving areas. One in ten respondents were classified as having a clear and egregious overt identification problem due to the location of their competitive food operation and disproportionately low NSLP participation by full price students. Public Advocates provided a full legal analysis of the widespread practice of segregated lunch lines, including a review of the legislative history of the “overt identification” prohibition in the National School Lunch Act. Our legal analysis, included in the Flunking Lunch report, provides the foundation for the report’s recommendations related to reducing stigma for students eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

Beginning in February 2010, Public Advocates worked with CBN to highlight the Flunking Lunch recommendations related to reducing the overt identification of low-income students. Our goal was to ensure that the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act clarified the legislative intent behind the overt identification provisions and put an end to the stigmatizing practice of segregated lunch lines. Advocacy included meetings with staff from the Senate Agriculture Committee and House Committee on Education and Labor; Michelle Obama’s policy staff; the United States Department of Agriculture (which implements the National School Lunch Act); and the California Department of Education’s Department of Food and Nutrition Services.

In May 2010, Michelle Obama and the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity adopted our recommendations on reducing the stigma associated with choosing a free or reduced price meal in their report Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation. (See Recommendation 3.13)

On December 13, 2010, President Obama signed The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the long-awaited reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.  We are happy to report that the overt identification and stigmatization issues we raised along with Campaign for Better Nutrition in their report were addressed in the legislative process, including a strong directive by Rep. George Miller, Chair of the Education and Labor Committee, that USDA update its interpretation and enforcement of the anti-segregation and anti-discrimination protections in the statute.  In his statement accompanying the bill, Rep. Miller stated, "(c)hildren should be able to participate in the child nutrition programs (i.e., school lunch) with dignity and without consequence of social stigma.  . . .  (T)he Secretary should also identify ways in which the modern school food environment may inadvertently stigmatize children or fail to protect their privacy."

Latest Updates

New Guidance Spells Success

October 3, 2012— In its newly updated School Meals Manual and Guidance Memorandum [SP 45-2012], the USDA has clarified the scope of the responsibility districts have in keeping confidential which students are eligible to receive free school meals based on their parents’ income. The new guidance is intended to ensure privacy is not lost due to operational decisions that can unintentionally make the student’s income status obvious to other students.

Read our Press Release: USDA Takes Action to Protect Low-Income Students from Stigmatization In National School Lunch Program

See Wynn Hausser's blog on this development: Good News for Low-Income Students in National School Lunch Program

USDA Promises to Do More to Protect Poor Students

September 21, 2011— In response to a letter from Representative Sam Farr (D-CA), Ranking Member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has promised to redraft and strengthen USDA's guidance to states and districts and encourage them “to be sensitive to how decisions regarding the service of competitive foods impact the School Meal Programs and potential stigma for those students that do not have discretionary income to choose items from the a la carte lines.

Read Tara Kini's blog on this development: No Such Thing as a Free Lunch