Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Taking the Stigma Out of School Lunch

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

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 the 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.

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


  1. Ed:

    Can't believe that USDA actually *requires* schools to be discreet since that is so not what is happening in practice.

    Eg. a very new middle school here has two distinct lines and counters, one for a la carte, one for subsidized. It couldn't be more likely to create stigma. Can you point me to the UDSA reg on that point? If not, I can google around to find it.


  2. Bettina, I went back and looked for that reg and couldn't find it. I was sure I'd read it in the USDA rulebook. But until we settle that, I've removed the offending passage.

  3. I am excited to see you doing this series! I actually visited BVSD last month to learn more about the accomplishments there. I was struck by the struggles that they are encountering re: low participation. Deb McCormick explained to me that a big roadblock to increasing parent buy-in is the insufficient time for lunch. Getting students through the lunch line and processed through the POS system eats up the majority of their lunch period leaving them little time to eat. Parents have said that they rather pack a lunch so they know their child will have time to eat. Its frustrating . . .

  4. Lisa, when they served tacos as Casey Middle School they had to extend the lunch hour because it's so popular. But they were also missing one of their servers. They had two service lines, but it still took a long time. I think it was just the slowness of making the plates. But I did hear that in Boulder--issues with lines and not enough time for lunch. I also think they only had 20 minutes for lunch scheduled, but that may vary from school to school. So it's not just service in the cafeteria, it's also decisions made by the school about how much time they want to allocate for lunch.

  5. Yes, lunch periods are always a school admin decision and not a food service one. In my experience I've learned that school schedules are nearly impossible to change, particularly for reasons relating to lunch. Lunch periods are most commonly the place time is taken from.

    I observed a BVSD elementary school baked ziti lunch. This type of meal allowed for speedy service. The young students were able to take their time and enjoy the beautiful salad bar!