The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Taking the Stigma Out of School Lunch

November 9th, 2010 · 4 Comments · Posted in kids, school food

Student pays for lunch with his PIN

In addition to the food prescribed by the federal government for subsidized meals–meat, vegetables, grains, milk–many schools offer a wide variety of fast food items on the theory that these will boost sales and help finance struggling food service programs. These foods can be sold “a la carte” or even in vending machines alongside subsidized meals as long as the proceeds accrue to the school meals program.

Because some students would rather not eat than be singled out as poor, the U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits schools from requiring special tokens, maintaining separate serving lines or otherwise identifying students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.  Thus, hot meals and a la carte items are intermingled in so-called blended lunch lines. Ideally, cash never changes hands. Instead, students either pay in advance into cafeteria accounts, or are identified by a computer as being entitled to free or reduced-price meals. In Boulder, students simply enter a six-digit personal identification number into a point of sales device when they exit the lunch line, as shown in the photo above.

Two touch pads speed things along

A kitchen employee monitors the transaction on a computer screen, while also checking to make sure that meals contain the necessary components to qualify for federal subsidies. To speed service and shorten lines at the steam tables, Boulder also has installed software that allows two students to check out simultaneously. Using the point of sales software also creates a record of food items students have purchased.

The Boulder Valley School District permits students and parents to make quick work of funding their meal accounts using a credit card online.

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  • jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal

    SBISD kids also use PIN numbers to pay for lunch. only in our district “hot sandwich” aka burger or chicken on a bun is a regular entree item daily. that means our students can pick “fast food” like items every day and have them qualify for free/reduced. when i asked the Food Director for participation numbers (I suspected that participation of hot sandwich caused participation in main entree item to decline. ) he thought there wasn’t an impact. i asked to see the data, but it hasn’t been provided yet. i’ll believe it when i see it. sigh.

  • Laura Washburn

    I’m not convinced that technology is enough to remove the stigma attached to free or reduced price school meals. I did, until I wrote my Masters dissertation on free school meals in England last year. I live in the UK. In this country, even when a school operates a cashless system, children can still be differentiated by what they are able to eat. For example, in high school, kids on free school meals can only use their benefit to buy food at lunch, not at mid morning break. And a lot of them eat at mid morning break so they can participate in luncthime clubs.

    Stigma is the result of differential treatment. As long as some kids have more money than others–either on their account cards or in their pockets–then stigma will always exist. Card systems may mean kids cannot be identified by money, but they can probably be identified by the food on their tray. Is this how it works in the US? I’d be interested to know more about how the cashless systems work in the US.

    I think any effort to improve access to good food to all children is vitally worthwhile. I’m not convinced that cashless systems do this, but I only have the UK perspective.

  • ReesieKitty

    At my son’s elementary school, each child is issued a blank ‘credit card’. They’re kept in pockets on a poster hanging in the classroom. Parents can ‘load’ the credit card with $$ for lunch and/or milks. For kids on free or reduced lunch, no one would ever know. The lunch lady swipes each kid’s card at lunch and no money changes hands at all any more. We used to use individual tickets. My son hardly ever ate school lunch last year, but this year has been on a kick to do so. I’ve currently got him making his own lunches at home in an effort to interest him in it!

  • Charlotte

    My mother would have loved this system. She’s not a morning person, and she’d gone K-12 to a private school where everyone ate at tables served family style. Sack lunches were foreign to her. So she’d buy us “hot lunch” for the entire school year. In one school, it was me and the free lunch kids, because of exactly this stigma — all the kids who didn’t qualify for free lunch brought their own to distinguish themselves. My mother didn’t care — especially since this was 40 years ago when hot lunch was actually pretty good — made by lunch ladies etc.