Big Food profits, children pay the price.
As Balanced’s Advocacy Manager, I spend pretty much all day, every day talking about how the imbalance of our food system is leading to our communities being both over- and undernourished. Too many products high in saturated fats and cholesterol like meat and eggs, too many refined grains and over-processed food products, not nearly enough fresh fruits, vegetables, or legumes. And it is always my honor to pass along what I have learned to parents, grandparents, and other concerned community members so they feel empowered to make change in their local community institutions.
But as much as I already know about how our current food system is making us sick, last week I read a story that brought my day to a screeching halt. The Washington Post covered a story that a school district in Rhode Island will begin denying warm meals to its students with lunch debt.
While their peers will be walking through the line picking up a chicken parmesan melt or a cheese omelet with bacon, these students will be given a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich. Talk about overnourished and undernourished.
The stark contrast of these offerings perfectly exemplifies the brokenness of our food system and how it fails our children every day.
While some students are served heaping helpings of foods we know cause disease, others are denied a warm meal with any semblance of nutritional balance, and the consequences are severe—physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially.
The problem of lunch debt isn’t new, and it certainly isn’t an isolated case. One school district in Colorado fired a cafeteria worker for feeding children who couldn’t pay for lunch. Students at schools in Utah and Pennsylvania who can’t pay for lunch get their meal taken away and thrown into the trash (at one point, 40 lunches in one day). Another school in Alabama literally stamps children’s arms with the words “I Need Lunch Money” (with a smiley face added for that personal touch). At such a tender age, these children have to walk around the lunchroom branded with the reminder that their parents can’t afford to pay for them to eat—the social harm of which is just as damaging.
A full 1 in 6 children experience food insecurity in the United States, and another 4.1% have very low food security, meaning they may not receive enough food for an active, healthy life. Taking into account that school children often get roughly half their calories from their school meals, we must do better for these children.
According to the School Nutrition Association, 75% of districts have unpaid school meal debt. Unpaid school meal debt is the norm, and while the reasons for this are complex, one thing is abundantly clear: no child should ever have to suffer the consequences of a broken system. All children deserve a meal that doesn’t just stave off hunger pangs, but nourishes their growing bodies and promotes their long-term health and wellness—regardless of their family’s ability to pay.
Food insecurity in childhood has devastating consequences, both for the individuals impacted and our society at large. Children who experience food insecurity get sick more often than their peers, and experience negative impacts on their physical, intellectual, emotional, and psychosocial development. When other children are having after-school snacks and extracurriculars, often students in food insecure households will take on extra jobs to contribute income and ease the burden on their parents, or in one case, develop a habit of sleeping to distract from hunger pangs (leaving no time for homework).
Unsurprisingly, then, these children struggle in the classroom as well. Studies show that food insecurity literally changes the architecture of the brain and central nervous system, leading to lower academic achievement and increased social behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, aggression, and anxiety. (I mean, think about it. When you’re really hungry, are you energized and excited to sit in a chair for 8 hours a day and be talked at? Probably not.)
Because today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce, the widespread problem of food insecurity puts our economic future as a country at risk as well. Adults who grew up food insecure are likely not as well prepared to perform in the contemporary workforce, leading to an overall less competitive workforce pool. The long-term health consequences of food insecurity in childhood can lead to greater absenteeism, presenteeism, and turnover in the workplace, all of which are huge financial costs for employers.
And if that’s not enough reasons to care about this issue, here’s one more: it’s also just wrong to deny a hungry, crying child food.
And yet, that’s what our food system has come to. A simple Google search showed that the company responsible for the Rhode Island school district’s food service is Aramark—a company that earned $4.3 billion in the first quarter of this year alone. But as it's already become clear, this problem is bigger than one company. Every major food service company in the country profits from contracts with school districts, and each has their own way of managing school meal debt.
For those of us who do this work, “lunch shaming” is just another example of our corporatized food system’s relentless prioritization of profit over the lives of our children. Big Food is robbing our children of their future—our future—right in front of our eyes. And it must change now.
I don’t have all the answers or solutions. But I do know that our children deserve somewhere between a cheese omelet with bacon and a sunflower seed butter sandwich. They deserve a balanced food environment where they have the power to make choices that feel good, promote long-term wellness, and nourish their bodies and hearts. And I’m not going to stop until that’s the reality for everybody.