I hadn’t heard of lunch shaming, most people probably hadn’t, until a few months ago. Now the topic seems to be in the news everywhere, thanks in part to the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights legislation enacted by the New Mexico State Legislature outlawing lunch shaming. So what is lunch shaming? School lunch shaming is holding children publicly accountable for any unpaid lunch bills they have accumulated, or in other words, holding children responsible for a debt their parents can not pay. Some might say school districts have no other choice. After all, they can not be expected to annually absorb this debt, which for some larger urban districts can reach into the millions of dollars. What makes this situation news worthy isn’t that school districts are trying to recoup this debt. They should be. No, what makes this situation news worth are the tactics many districts use to go about about collecting the debt and perhaps less emphasized, but possibly more important, that this debt exists in 76% of school districts across the United States.
The reason the topic of school lunch debt exploded onto the news scene is due to reports about how some school districts have chosen to handle students who can not pay for lunch. Angry teachers, cafeteria staff and students report incidents involving cafeteria staff taking a regular lunch away from a child and throwing it away in front of the hungry child and other students before giving the child a less desirable lunch or in a few cases no lunch at all. Other disturbing examples include stamping or writing on the child’s arm that s/he has unpaid lunch debt. In the not too distant past, children with lunch debt were made to do chores in the cafeteria in exchange for food, as was the case with Michael Padilla, the State Senator in New Mexico who introduced that state’s anti-lunch shaming legislation. Of course the more extreme cases of lunch shaming are the ones making the news, but the most common practice is to deny the child with lunch debt the regular hot or cold meal, serving him instead a less desirable meal, usually a cheese sandwich. In many school districts, no uniform policy addressing school lunch debt exists, leaving each individual school to address the issue of how to deal with students unable to pay for their lunch. In an effort to remedy the lack of uniform school district policies dealing with children who can not pay for their lunch, the US Department of Agriculture has set a July 1, 2017, deadline for states to establish these policies.
In addition to attempts to prevent school lunch debt from rising during the school year, school districts, as well as the general public, are making attempts to alleviate existing debt. In districts where the debt is small enough, it may just be absorbed or funds may be shifted from the General Fund to offset the debt. For many larger districts, however, this is not an option. Most school district Food Service Managers actively work with families owing school lunch debt to find solutions for paying off the debt. Additionally, these managers strive to enroll every student who is eligible in the free and reduced school lunch program. In addition to school districts trying to lessen their meal debt, the general public has gotten involved, especially once reports of lunch shaming started being reported in the news. According to GoFundMe, at least 30 active campaigns exist to help pay down lunch debt in a particular school district. Additionally, two high school juniors in West Palm Beach, FL have started School Lunch Fairy, an organization, to help zero out lunch debt in school districts nationwide. Finally, good Samaritans in scores of school districts have made arrangements with a school district to pay off all or part of that district’s outstanding lunch debt. (See note at the bottom.)
All of these efforts are laudable, but they are band-aid responses to the problem and more thought needs to go into planning long term solutions. One of the first places to start would be with what is already in place. The programs which provide free and reduced breakfast and lunch to children are very successful for the students enrolled in these programs. School districts should be making every effort to enroll as many of their qualifying students in these programs as they possibly can. Additionally, school districts with schools whose student population qualifies to be included in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows qualifying schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all enrolled students without collecting household applications, should take steps to participate in this program if not already doing so. Both of these programs help provide millions of children with a nutritious breakfast and lunch, but still they fall short of solving the lunch debt problem. Many eligible families, in spite of a school district’s best efforts, still fail to fill out an application for free lunch and most schools in the United States do not qualify for CEP. Furthermore, of those school who qualify for CEP, roughly half of them fail to participate in the provision. The failure of the current programs to fully address the nationwide problem has lead some educators to suggest that maybe schools should just be providing all students with lunch, much in the same way students are provided with textbooks and transportation to and from school.
Equating providing lunch to all students to providing other necessary items for student success, like textbooks or transportation to school, is an interesting concept and one that I am sure will require much more debate, as will other ideas proposed to deal with school lunch debt. In the meantime steps can and should be taken to alleviate the shame and embarrassment children experience when they have lunch debt. One of the easiest first steps to take is to do away with the dreaded cheese sandwich. Why can’t children with school lunch debt just receive the cold meal that is on the menu for the day? By giving them this meal, these children do not stand out among their peers by carrying the stigma of being unable to afford lunch. Another practice that should banned immediately is the practice of taking food from a child and throwing it away, particularly in front of the child. I find this practice incredibly cruel, not to mention offensively wasteful of food and taxpayers’ dollars.
Removing the shame associated with having school lunch debt, some fear, will only cause more families to abuse the system, increasing school lunch debt for school districts. A certain number of people will always cheat whatever system exists, but little evidence exists to support that the majority of households carrying lunch debt could actually pay for their meals, but instead are attempting to freeload off the system. What most districts find is that this debt is carried by households who qualify for free/reduced lunch, but are not signed up to participate or by households who just miss the cutoff to qualify. One anecdotal way school districts know these families are truly struggling rather than freeloading is that they often receive an influx of payments on school lunch debts every other Friday, which is a common payday.
Ask almost any teacher, school administrator, or cafeteria worker in a public school, especially one located in a community with significant poverty, and she will tell you that children come to school hungry every day of the school year. Research exists showing the negative impact hunger and lack of good nutrition can have on children and learning. Many of the proposed solutions to the problem of school lunch debt, and the larger underlying problem of childhood hunger will cost money. As a society we have to decide whether we want to pay the cost to solve a problem in its infancy or wait to pay for the all the repercussions that the problem will cause if allowed to exists unchecked. Feeding hungry children now is a less costly solution than having to address the cognitive, emotional, and health problems that hunger and the lack of good nutrition cause in children. Besides, ensuring children in one of the wealthiest nations in the world do not go hungry is the only morally appropriate choice to make.
In my school district a good Samaritan paid off the entire school lunch debt this year. I hope she knows what a difference she has made for these families.
On a personal note:
Over the school year I repeatedly fussed at my younger son for how quickly he went through the money we deposited into his school lunch account. This past week he received his school yearbook, and as I thumbed through the pages looking at how grown up these kids suddenly look, I was stopped by one autograph. It said, “Thanks for buying me lunch when I didn’t have money.” I don’t know how many times my son bought lunch for this friend or whether there were others he helped. I do know I was incredibly proud.