My kids absolutely refuse to eat the hot lunch at school. Whenever we talk about it, they curl their little noses, roll their eyes, and act as if even considering school food is the funniest joke I’ve ever told.

They say they resist because the lunch is gross, which it usually is, but I suspect there is something more to the story.

When I visit their school in the morning, I notice a small population of students in the cafeteria eating breakfast. It looks to me that it’s mostly poor kids eating.

At lunchtime, it’s the same thing.

I’m bothered by the question about whether or not eating at school has become a marker of class?

I could be wrong. I might be presuming too much. How do I know the kids are poor?

When I visit, I bring Subway for my kids, and there are always affirming comments from their friends who are opening up bright colored lunch totes full of deceivingly packaged not-really “organic” foods. (Yes, there are some pre-peeled mini-carrots in there, but often it just looks like more expensive crap with copywriting on the labels meant to make us feel like good parents. “No corn syrup!” “No GMOs” “No artificial colors!”)

Back in my school days when prophets rode dinosaurs, it was the poor kids who brought their lunch from home. When they fell behind on lunch payments, or their parents forgot to turn in paperwork, they would miss out on the majestic grandeur of Thursday’s doughy, saucy, tangy cheese pizza that we all coveted.

Maybe this isn’t your pet issue. Schools have real issues like violence, bullying, sexism, low test scores, big class sizes, and small overall budgets, so, there’s that. It would be nice to improve school lunch – as Michelle Obama (we miss you!) did, but is it a priority worth discussing?

Hell yeah.

First, as a parent, I know I should work hard to make sure my kids understand class and fight its social trappings.

That’s for me to teach. It was easier with my oldest son because he was on the free lunch program, as were most of his friends, so we didn’t have to discuss it. I’ve learned so much since then about how classism kills the dream of public schooling. If communal eating is an issue, it’s one we can fix.

Second, the food program itself is a shame-and-blame system.

I’m writing this message today because my wife received a call from our district saying we were behind on our lunch payments. Several times a year we’re contacted about a ghost account even though we’re not on the program. When you’re account is due our district sends text messages robocalls, and collection calls from live humans.

I know they’re doing their jobs, but they act like a terroristic bag of dicks when they come for their money.

Is this really what we’re doing these days? Are we ok with harassing poor parents for chump change?

Even worse, in some cases, we’re ripping the trays of food out of the hands of children when their parents haven’t paid. The food goes in the trash, and the kid gets a cheese sandwich.

That makes me want to cry.

Can we see a way to feed ALL children in a country that throws away more food than some nations consume? In a country so awash in food that we can fork over billions of dollars to a diet industry, it is a failure of morality and adult politics that we can’t do the right thing.

Third, our sub-zero lunch budget traps our schools into buying eatable horseshit.

The debt our district was trying to collect today was a mere $1.25. A kid in our son’s class checked our son’s name on a breakfast form instead of his own, and the total was a stinking $1.25.

What on Earth can you feed a growing child for $1.25 in 2017?

Eons ago when I first visited a central nutrition center for public schools, I found the answer to that question.

I noticed the district-owned large ovens, soup kettles, and industrial kitchen assets that were collecting dust. In the room, next door poorly paid women with hairnets and gloves were dropping pre-cooked finger foods into plastic trays that moved quickly down a conveyer belt and into boxes headed for schools.

When I asked about the process district staff told me it was wholly a matter of budget.

The cost per meal needed to be so low that it would attract vendors like Tyson foods who offered such delicacies as hormone-laden chicken nuggets formed into the shape of farm animals. Our average per student meal was below $2.00. Two districts over in Minnetonka that cost was closer to $10.00. They had sushi, fresh fruit, and salads because their students could afford to pay for lunch.

Not only are lunch budgets inequitable between rich and poor districts, but food portions within a district can also be a problem too.

I met a principal in an impoverished North Minneapolis school who privately told a group and me that she discovered the nutrition center was giving her 8th graders the same portions as the kindergarteners, but 8th graders the district’s more affluent K-8 schools were given more substantial age-appropriate portions.

We were incredulous. On top of every other inequity we layer on to schools, we let hungry kids be the hungriest when they’re poor? Sadly, it was true.

Finally, the food waste is outrageous, and adults are the problem.

We aren’t teaching eating expectations, manners, and skills. The kids I join for lunch start with the sweetest thing on their tray; usually, some plastic wrapped bullshit that looks like it came straight from Miss Debbie’s factory.

From there they may take a bite or two out of their entree, and then throw away full cartons of milk and untouched fruit. I blame staff and parents for that one.

I’ve visited schools where the lunch period was an extension of other learning periods. It wasn’t a free-for-all. Some parents might fight me on this one, I know. I can hear the protests about how kids need to be kids, and how they need free-time to be wild, loud, and childish.

Wherever you are working today, look at the co-worker who gets on your last nerve. That person had parents like the ones I just described.

I will continue to work on my kids’ attitudes about eating at school, and not participating in a class-based demarcation between those who bring home food and those who don’t.

I will keep visiting and modeling lunchtime behavior for my kids, and for their classmates who can’t get enough of me (I’m the cool Dad, sorry if you’re not) when I join them.

And, for the love of God, I will keep yelping and write about the fact that we feed American children like little prisoners.

Let’s stop that.


What do you think? Should I make my kids eat the school lunch as a form of class solidarity? Comment below.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


  1. hear hear

    America is obese and depressed for a reason; the bifurcation between Walmart food and Whole Food foodies must end. Our children, at least, should universally be offered the Whole Foods hot meal option for both breakfast and lunch.

    For that matter, let’s make our schools look hospitable too. The chain-link fencing and cracked concrete common to public schools in this area is depressing as hell. Cafeterias and school plants should be beautiful, not punitive.


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