As federal support for free school meals drops, kids’ stigma may increase

September 28, 2023 — With the end of pandemic-era federal support that provided free school breakfasts and lunches for all, experts worry that kids who continue to need free meals will face increasing stigma.

During the pandemic, the federal government made school breakfasts and lunches free for two years and increased meal reimbursements to schools for the third year. When this support ended in July, nine states made universal free school meals permanent; in the rest of the country, only students from households at or up to 130% of the federal poverty level can eat for free, while those from households making slightly higher incomes qualify for reduced prices. But many families struggle to pay for even the discounted meals. According to experts quoted in a September 25, 2023, Civil Eats article, this can lead to their children being shamed.

Schools will feed a child even if he or she can’t pay, but this results in debt accruing. Prior to the pandemic, some schools used tactics that embarrassed children who couldn’t pay for their meals, such as sending them home with bills or serving them obviously cheaper food. While fewer districts have resumed these practices, they haven’t gone away, Juliana Cohen, adjunct professor of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in the article.

Students who qualify for free school lunches based on their household income may also feel stigmatized, Cohen said. For example, they may worry about being seen with a “free school lunch” form that brands them as different from their peers.

Cindy Leung, assistant professor of public health nutrition at Harvard Chan School, said in the article that the shame, anger, and loneliness experienced by kids who are food insecure is a form of toxic stress that can be harmful to their mental health.

The stigma around free school meals can be so strong that children don’t want to eat them. Research led by Cohen found that 42% of families eligible for free or reduced-price meals said that their child would be less likely to eat a school meal unless it was free for all students. Evidence from the past few years suggests that if that stigma is taken away, more kids will eat a school meal.

“There is so much movement in this area,” Leung said. “Not only are we providing all children nutrients, but universal free school meals reduce the stigma of who’s accessing school meals. There’s no more lunch shaming. So, how can we leverage this momentum?”

Read the Civil Eats article: Without Federal School-Meal Support, Lunch Shaming May Be Back on the Menu

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The free school lunch paradox (Harvard Public Health)