Is There Such Thing as a Free Breakfast?

I finally came across a Dan Ariely answer I agreed with.

Or at least I thought so until I read the comments.

Here was the question someone had submitted to Dan:

My children’s school has a mix of affluent and poor families. Some of the students qualify for free breakfast, but they don’t take advantage of it because of the social stigma. What can we do so that these children don’t have to make a choice between going hungry and telling the world they can’t afford to pay for their meals? —Namrata

And here is Dan’s response, which I thought was brilliant:

It’s natural for children to avoid having to show their wealthier friends that they can’t afford breakfast. If I could design the school cafeteria, I would arrange it so that students from better-off families would purchase a special debit card to buy breakfast while needier kids would receive an identical card for getting their free breakfasts. That way, everyone would simply hand a card to the cashier, and no one would be able to tell who was paying and who was not.

Dan’s solution seems to solve the problem of allowing the students who qualify for a free meal to remain anonymous. I couldn’t think of a better solution, and I should have quit while I was ahead. I thought I could get a short but sweet blog post out of the fact that I finally agreed with one of Dan’s answers.

But then I made the mistake of reading the comments (there were only two).

One of the commenters pointed out that the issue wasn’t really one of remaining anonymous at the point of checkout since many schools already have some type of account system in place.

The issue was that for the most part, it was primarily the lower income students who were eating breakfast. So even if you had a debit card, that didn’t hide the fact that you were eating breakfast, and thus telling the world that you were poor.

The commenter suggested that a proper solution would involve getting more kids to eat breakfast at school. This would allow the lower income students to blend in with their higher income peers. Such a solution is obviously harder than the simple debit card system suggested by Dan, since it involves changing people’s behavior. But it does seem to get to the heart of the problem.

I guess this highlights the power of getting a variety of opinions on a problem, and not just accepting the first solution, or the solution from the leader of a group (Dan) or the smartest person in the room (again, Dan).

As for how you get more kids to eat breakfast?

Perhaps making food that is appealing and nutritious – smoothies and acai bowls come to mind. Add a smoothie or acai bowl rewards program; for every four that you consume, you get your fifth one free.

It’s critical that students who qualify for free meals get those free meals. But it’s also important that those students don’t feel ostracized for being part of the free meals program.

A combination of a debit card system along with more nutritious and tasty meals, along with some type of incentive reward system, may be just the solution needed.


4 thoughts on “Is There Such Thing as a Free Breakfast?

  1. I’ve seen the menu of what our school system claims is “breakfast”. It is actually “dessert”–honey buns, donuts, sugary cereal — all actually worse than nothing as they are sugary carbs that raise insulin levels making human beings hungrier than ever –although the milk provides some protein but the overall effect is no one needs this junk first thing in the morning.

    I would set out IN THE HALLWAY bowls of whole fruit –apples, oranges (and maybe a few bananas tho that is trickier as the shelf life of ripe bananas is so short) plus those little bags of almonds (no salt, no oils) they sell at trader joe’s.

    The kids could grab them as they walk by to class. The wealthier kids who roll outta bed don’t have time for breakfast (or forgot to brush their teeth) would be indistinguishable as they grab a piece of fruit to freshen their breath/lessen dehydration &/ or a bag of nuts for fuel.

    It would probably cost less than having to staff up “breakfast” each morning with lunch trays and cause less waste.

    The book Chew on This (the kids’ version of Fast Food Nation
    and the documentary & companion book to Supersize Me featured a school in Wisconsin I think that demonstrated how kids grades/attention spans/learning all improved when vending machines/sodas/junk food was eliminated and healthy food substituted. And Chew on This features a brave girl in Alaska who took on the soda lobby and administration that was ruining native american’s teeth/health and even when she lost a vote to got sodas banned at her school the Principal was so impressed he gave up the money from Pepsi cola anyway and agreed with her and got rid of the soda machines.

    I get so mad at the junk food lobby. Selling soda/candy has no place in school. It ruins their tastebuds for fruit. Who among us will choose an apple instead of a cupcake , day after day? or chips and soda? You have to get rid of the junk and then we will chose the apple and not miss the junk.

    Off my soap box but it is crazy that the adults in charge of food choices would supply kids with junk. I’m also in favor of the cupcake ban for birthdays. My son is gluten free and in Kindergarten with 60 kids there was a birthday practically EVERY day. I know because I had to send in his gluten free versions for their freezer and I had to keep replenishing them. It was absurd. No one needs that much sugar in SCHOOL.

    and if parents want to ply their kids w/ sugar, there’s always before or after school –but for God’s sake, school admins, don’t PROVIDE it!

    … sugar is more addictive than heroine and yet they’re pushing it on kids every morning? literally eating nothing for breakfast instead of sugar is better for the kids.
    But better still of course is an apple or orange and a little bag of nuts.

    (Hard boiled eggs also are a good option , but they are more labor intensive and need to be refrigerated…)

    The best way to combat the soda lobby would be to get the egg lobby and the apple and orange lobbys involved. Agri business vs junk food lobby w/ the adults hoping & helping the agri to win.


    1. Wow – you’ve been thinking about this. I agree that there is a lot of room for improvement in what schools offer to their students and that doing so could be more cost-effective. As to the soda issue, that’s why I am such a big fan of sin taxes like the one the City of Philadelphia has placed on soda. As you might imagine, the soda lobby has been relentless in trying to get it overturned.


Comments are closed.