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Maintaining Dignity at Lunchtime

Maintaining Dignity at Lunchtime

tray on a lunch line

At my elementary school, every student had the ability to purchase lunch tickets so that they did not need to carry cash every day, and for a forgetful young child like me, these tickets were much easier to use.

Little did I know that this ticket system was also ensuring the dignity of students who received free or reduced-price lunches. These students used tickets like everyone else, even though they had received the tickets for free. Later the cafeteria updated its system to an electronic account system where each student would type in their student ID number, and money would be automatically deducted.  The system was different, but the dignity remained intact, all students were able to purchase their lunch without shame.

This principle of dignity has shaped the school lunch program for many years. Since 2010, under the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), schools where 40% of the student body are eligible for free lunch are able to provide lunch to every students, eliminating a paper application process. CEP ensures that students who are unable to bring their own school lunch are not denied food. This provision also makes providing lunch to students more efficient for school administrators.

Most importantly, CEP ensures all students receive a nutritious meal, without visible segregation between those who can bring lunch and those who rely on the school’s lunch program. In the past, schools have denied a hot lunch to students who did not bring in enough money, and instead gave them a cheese sandwich. This was a clear marker of the student’s financial situation, and could be incredibly embarrassing. CEP levels the playing field in schools where need is the highest.

As Congress considers H.R. 5003, a bill to reauthorize child nutrition programs, it is considering raising the eligibility rate for CEP from 40% of students eligible for free lunch to 60%. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities this change would end CEP for over seven thousands schools that serve nearly 3.4 million students. The change would also block 11,500 schools that qualify for CEP but have not yet adopted it from joining this very effective program. We need to protect the expansiveness of CEP because of all the positive benefits it can provide to high-poverty schools.

The bill has other provisions which we are concerned will limit access to meals. The bill does not make significant new investments in summer meal programs or in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Currently only 1 in 6 low income children have access to free meals during the summer. Additionally, an increase in WIC funding could provide more benefits to new mothers and their children at a particularly important time in their development.

The Jewish tradition teaches, “If a stranger comes and says, I am hungry. Please give me food. We are not allowed to first see if he is honest or not, we must immediately give him food” (Mishneh Torah, Matanot Aniyim 7:6). This legislation will hinder our ability to feed truly hungry children. We have an obligation to build programs that maximize the number of hungry students fed, not restrict access because of burdensome processes.

To learn more about the RAC’s analysis of the Senate’s child nutrition bill click here. Also, visit the RAC’s hunger page for all of our updates on Child Nutrition programs.


Tyler Dratch is the Torah, text, and tradition coordinator at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (the RAC) and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, MA.

Tyler Dratch

Published: 4/27/2016