Text: National School Lunch Programs

by Isaac Dost

Educational equity is reached when every student is given equal opportunity to succeed, taking into account any disadvantages they may inherently face. In the United States, access to food is one of the most important keys to academic success that some students take for granted, while others struggle to find daily nourishment. In this podcast, I will use a cultural geographical scope to discuss how educational equity is not being reached in schools where children don’t have access to full meals, and I will discuss what is being done and not being done to solve this issue.

The National Institutes of Health reports that, in a study of inner city students, 33% of the students were classified as being at nutritional risk. This means that 33% of children in the study received less than 50% of their recommended daily calorie intake or less than 50% of their recommended daily intake of 2 or more key nutrients. All students in the study given access to the government funded Universal School Breakfast Program and were evaluated six months after the program’s start. The NIH found that “students who decreased their nutritional risk [or increased calorie and nutrient intake] showed significantly greater: improvements in attendance…decreases in hunger, and improvements in math grades and behavior.” This led them to the conclusion that “improvements in nutrient intake were associated with significant improvements in student academic performance and psychosocial functioning” (R.E. Kleinman, 2002).

The reason that this finding is important lies in the key to educational equity: power balance. In cultural geography, we commonly discuss the idea of place and power, and how different individuals within a cultural place or society, like a school, own a certain amount of power that dictates their standing and identity within that place. If educational equity is being achieved, there would be, ideally, a perfect power balance among all students. For instance, disabled children would be given special treatment to give them equal opportunity and children who could not afford food would be given a nutritious meal regardless of their household income. Therefore, if students don’t have access to healthy food, educational equity is not reached, and unfortunately not all students have that access.

Many students grow up in low income homes and cannot afford to buy food at all let alone expensive school meals, and these students are given less power to succeed academically. One clear illustration of this problem was apparent in Utah earlier this year. On January 28, at an elementary school in Salt Lake City, dozens of students were served lunch just as they had been every other day. As they attempted to pay for their food though, a Fox News report states that cafeteria workers stripped the lunches away from them because the students’ meal plan balances were insufficient for the food they had been served. As they stood in line with their friends, the students’ were handed fruit and milk and their confiscated lunches were thrown in the trash. Parents were outraged by this, saying that their child should not have to be subjected to the embarrassment that comes from this treatment, and the school agreed stating that “the situation could have and should have been handled in a different manner” (Green, 2014). But all this attention to the students’ treatment in the school line has overshadowed the fact that a lunch of fruit and milk leaves these students at a great disadvantage to students who have access to a full, healthy meal. Thus, these students are left with less power to succeed in school and educational equity is lost.

So what is being done to restore educational equity in schools? The National School Lunch Program, started in 1946, provides subsidies to schools to help feed these children. According to its website, the NSLP provides such subsidies to 94% of public and non-profit private schools for every meal that they served for free or reduced price, and in 2012, 31 million students received a free or reduced-price meal every day (US Department of Agriculture, 2013). This attempt to improve education among underprivileged children has been very successful by giving students access to healthy meals and has allowed many children access to the nutrition necessary for academic success and equity.

While there is no notable objection to improving educational quality, there is controversy amongst organizations, politicians, and taxpayers as to whether government funds should be spent on providing lunches to students. Critics like former Mississippi Republican representative Todd Akin believe that the government should “be out of the education business” and not use government money to fund children’s meals. He believes that other means should be taken to improve educational equity, but that the government should not be spending taxpayer money on it (Talking Points Memo, 2012). On the other hand there are people who take it as fact that anything and everything must be done to help students get food in school, and one of those people is Brian Greene, CEO of the Houston food bank.

[Audio Clip] “In our area, the greater Houston area, today is a typical day. About 53,000 people will go hungry – about 3600 of them being children. I was talking to a principle for one of the elementary schools we do the backpack buddy club thing with, and she was telling me that she was talking to one of her fourth graders who had flunked the tax test, and she was asking, “What happened, what are we going to do,” and the little girl explained that she deliberately flunked the tax test, and further, she was going to deliberately flunk the retake. So the principle asked her, “Well, why?”… so that she could go to summer school. Why would a little girl want to go to summer school? I don’t remember wanting to go to summer school… So she could eat. I mean you think about, in her life, is she thinking about her future?” (Greene, 2011)

Brian sees how children like this are suffering and he knows that the NSLP is helping children to survive and have a fair chance in life, but that clearly more needs to be done.

Unfortunately for students like this girl, the critics’ arguments are bolstered by the fact that the NSLP does have some problems, and some schools districts have begun to drop or reconsider the program in their schools due to new standards that are impossible for these schools to meet. The NSLP has added new criteria in the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act that makes them offer new, healthier options to students and increases the subsidies for these schools. Unfortunately, according to a Time report in 2013 entitled “Why Some Schools are Saying No Thanks to the School Lunch Program”, these healthy options are costly to the schools because children just don’t order the healthy options and if they did, the subsidies do not completely cover the cost of these new meals (Sifferlin, 2013). Newer regulations have further dictated what food must be served to children and while it addresses the cost issue for schools, an ABC report from 2012 entitled “Uproar Over School Lunches” shows that another issue is presented.

[AUDIO CLIP] “The new rules limit elementary schoolers to 600 calories, 700 calories for middle schoolers, and 850 for high schoolers. ‘Its roughly the same amount of calories, but it’s a different mix of how you get to those calories and we think it’s based on the science and is a more nutritious mix.’ But the result of all that healthy food, say many parents and kids, is a dramatic increase in plate waste. ‘Sometimes the food is just nasty.’ In fact the only known study of food waste under the new guidelines, contains a startling statistic: kids are now throwing away twice as much food as last year. ‘If you just plop the vegetables and just plop the food there and don’t do anything else, waste goes up about 97%.’ (ABC News, 2012)

This troubling waste, along with the other problems presented by the new regulations, has led roughly 4 percent of schools to drop or consider dropping the program for the 2013-2014 school year. This means that any funded students at these schools will be left with less nutritious meals, putting them at an academic disadvantage to other students, and these students lose educational equity.

To solve this problem we must again look at it in terms of power. To reach true educational equity, all of these students will have to be in equal positions of power so that no inherent factors put students at a disadvantage. The only way that this can possibly be done is if wealth is completely erased from the equation and food is made available for free to all students. This is exactly what the Dallas Independent school district realized and now all students in the district can receive lunches for free. School administrators found that the eligibility paperwork hurdles caused by the NSLP caused some children to remain unqualified for the program and thus go without food giving them no chance to succeed academically. In the same article on ThinkProgress.org, author Bryce Covert argues that if even 70% of eligible students could have access to nutritional food every year, 807,000 more students would graduate high school every year, so if every school provided free meals to every student, graduation rates would rise drastically (Covert, 2013).

The only problems with this come from the critics of public funding. The money providing these meals would have to come from tax payer money, and many politicians will not let that kind of legislation pass. What we need to do as a community is ensure that our politicians realize the importance of educational equity that is inherent in the establishment of public schools. Once they realize that no child should be denied an equal education because of income, they will realize that free or reduced-price lunch programs are essential in public education.



ABC News. (2012). Uproar Over School Lunches. Nightline .

Covert, B. (2013). All Students in the Dallas School District Will Now Get Free Meals. Think Progress .

Green, M. (2014). Parents upset after school takes lunches from students with account deficits. Fox News 13 Salt Lake City .

Greene, B. (2011). Food Programs & Our Schools. Children at Risk .

R.E. Kleinman, e. a. (2002). Diet, Breakfast, and Academic Performance in Children. National Institutes of Health, Annals of nutrition & metabolism .

Sifferlin, A. (2013). Why Some Schools are Saying ‘No Thanks’ to the School-Lunch Program. Time .

Talking Points Memo. (2012). Akin: End The School-Lunch Program. TPM Livewire.

US Department of Agriculture. (2013). National School Lunch Program.