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Public Health Grand Rounds: The Public Health Case for Universal Free School Meals

  • CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy 55 West 125th Street, 7th floor New York, NY, 10027 United States (map)

On Wednesday, September 28th from 4:00 to 5:30 pm, the CUNY School of Public Health will hold its first Public Health Grand Rounds of the Academic Year. The speaker will be Jan Poppendieck, Senior Faculty Fellow at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute and Professor Emerita of Sociology at Hunter College. 

Janet Poppendieck is the author of  three award-winning books on food assistance and food insecurity: Free for All: Fixing School Food in America; (University of California Press, 2010); Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement (Penguin, 1999); and Breadlines Knee Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression (Rutgers University Press, 1985). Jan is also a recipient of a 2011 James Beard Foundation leadership award. She serves on the Boards of Directors of WHYHunger?, Community Food Advocates, School Food FOCUS, and Wellness in the Schools.

In case you missed it- watch this presentation on the CUNY School of Public Health's YouTube Channel


Lunch for Learning Campaign - leading advocacy around universal free school meals in New York City


Summary: The Seven Deadly Ins of the School Food Means Test

By Janet Poppendieck, PhD(janpoppend@gmail.com)

The three-tier system now in use for federal reimbursements for school meals creates major problems that interfere with the achievement of the fundamental goals of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.  I call these problems the “Seven Deadly Ins.”

1. INDIGNITY. The Three Tier system stigmatizes the children who eat free or at a reduced price.  Simply be creating three levels of eligibility based on family income, the system creates the conditions under which some students can look down on others, playing intoadolescents’ natural desire to distinguish themselves from others.

2. INEFFICIENCY. The system generates a whole host of essentially non-productive tasks: application, certification, verification, counting and claiming, which divert resources from the basic task of feeding children.

3. INACCURACY. The three tier system is profoundly error-prone, both at the level of the individual child and as a basis for establishing a school’s eligibility for Title One funds and similar poverty-based entitlements.

4. INSECURITY. Some children are erroneously denied benefits to which they are entitled, fostering food insecurity.  Even when the process is accurate, children in real need may be denied free and reduced price meals.  In today’s economy, an income of 185% of the federal poverty line is not a guarantee of adequacy.  Fully one fifth of households with the most severe form of food insecurity in a recent household food security survey had incomes too high to qualify for reduced price meals.

5. INEQUITY. Because the cost of living varies dramatically from one part of the nation to another, and the federal poverty threshold on which eligibility is based is not adjusted for regional differences in the cost of living, children in low cost of living areas are considerably better served than children in high cost-of-living areas. Not only are the eligibility thresholds more realistic, but the standardized federal reimbursement rate goes further toward the purchase and preparation of food.

6. INHOSPITABLENESS. The system puts the school in the position of selling food to children rather than welcoming them with a wholesome meal.  Cashiers slow down the line, cutting down on time to eat and socialize.  Parents who owe money are reluctant to visit schools. Efforts to collect money owed lead to punitive “alternate meals.”

7. INAPPROPRIATENESS.  The need to sell food to children puts children who are influenced by billions of dollars of advertising for some of the nation’s least healthy foods, in charge of the menu.  The vendor/customer model is an inappropriate relationship between adults and the children in their care.  Further, the three-tier system is inconsistent with the unifying function of school in a democracy.