The Shame of Lunch Shaming


Consider this scenario: Laughing and talking, a group of students enters the cafeteria and heads for the lunch line. As they fill their trays and step forward in line, one student is singled out. His tray is taken by a cafeteria worker and replaced with a cheese sandwich and a container of milk as he is quite audibly told that his lunch account is not up to date. No longer laughing, the student takes the sandwich to a table and begins eating.

Have you heard of “lunch shaming”? A common practice, it has popped up in news reports repeatedly in recent years as school districts grapple with ways to handle it and parents, outraged, cry out against it. While the premise for the action—parents’ failure to pay for lunch—may seem like a valid reason for withholding students’ lunches, the impact on the students is devastating. That’s why this reprehensible practice needs to stop.

Part of the blame lies with the federal government’s mandate that school districts obtain household applications and then receive payment at either a reduced rate or the full rate from parents who are considered able to pay. Families below the poverty line are not required to pay, enabling children from those families to eat free. The problem is that not every family deemed able to pay actually is able. As a result, when they don’t pay, students are forced to pay the consequences.

And those consequences vary from district to district. Some provide a lesser lunch as in the opening scenario here. Others require students to clean the cafeteria after lunch. Still others demand that students wear wristbands to indicate their debt. A Minnesota high school was said to be prohibiting students from attending their graduation ceremony if they owed lunch money, which was averted when Superintendent Keith Ellison stepped in to prohibit the action. And an elementary school in Pennsylvania sent letters to parents, threatening to place their children in foster care if they failed to pay their lunch debt (a local businessman paid the debt). Ranging from the ridiculous to the outrageous, these consequences punish students for a situation beyond their control.

Yet there are solutions without any negative effect. Rather than shame students, the entire state of New Mexico, for example, provides free lunch for every student as does New York City, which has the largest school district in the country. Likewise, California’s Gov. Gavin Newsome has just signed a bill outlawing lunch shaming in his state and guaranteeing that students will receive the same lunch, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay.

Some other districts handle debt online or by phone, ensuring that students are not impacted in any way. What’s more, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a USDA Food and Nutrition Service program, provides free meals for all students in low income districts. Eligible school districts need only apply for the program to receive reimbursement for breakfast and lunch based on students’ families participation in other government programs, not on household applications.

Lunch shaming is itself a shame. Students are innocent bystanders caught in the middle of a difficult situation. They are not responsible for lunch payments, so why punish them when that debt is unpaid? The shame, humiliation and degradation they then experience is real.

Schools that take draconian measures are the ones who should be ashamed—ashamed of making a bad situation exponentially worse for defenseless children. It’s time to care about the whole child and not just the money accrued through them. Stop the lunch shaming and devise a solution that leaves student dignity and self-worth intact.

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