School Lunch Shaming

FILE - In this Thursday, May 4, 2017 file photo, a third-grader punches in her student identification to pay for a meal at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, N.M. All students are offered the same lunch at Gonzales and other Santa Fe public schools to avoid any chance of embarrassing students whose parents may have fallen behind on meal payments. In April 2017, New Mexico became the first state to outlaw the shaming of children for any unpaid meals. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

NEW YORK (AP) — Denying children a hot meal apparently isn’t a popular way for schools to deal with unpaid lunch money.

After a flood of angry Facebook comments and phone calls, a Rhode Island district last week abandoned its plan to serve cold sandwiches to students whose families owe money.

“The outcry was global,” said Catherine Bonang of Warwick Public Schools.

Such practices aren’t new, but they are facing more scrutiny. As the push against “lunch shaming” gains traction, here’s what you should know:

Previously, students in Warwick with unpaid charges were served cheese sandwiches that are not on the regular menu, which made it clear who owed money, Bonang said. The district was trying to make it less obvious by switching to sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches, since those are offered as a daily option to everyone, she said.

But the backlash prompted officials to go further and say all students would get the choice of a hot meal. A policy of not letting older students with unpaid meal charges take part in activities like dances and field trips was also recently scrapped, the district said.

It’s difficult to gauge the prevalence among the nation’s thousands of schools. But in 2011, a majority of districts surveyed said they had unpaid meal charges, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal school lunch program. Among those schools, serving alternative meals was common. Cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were cited as alternatives.

Districts also reported taking other actions to recover costs, such as withholding grades.

New Mexico passed a law against it in 2017, and several other states including California, Iowa and Oregon have followed suit.

The laws generally prohibit practices like stamping students’ hands or making them do chores, though serving alternative meals isn’t always explicitly banned. The laws’ supporters say students should never go hungry at school or be shamed with food.

Last month, federal lawmakers introduced “anti-lunch shaming” legislation to help shield children with unpaid charges. The USDA also discourages practices that stigmatize students, but lets districts set their own policies.

A child can feel shame even if it’s not obvious to others why they’re getting a cold sandwich, said Jennifer Ramo of New Mexico Appleseed, which advocates against the practice.

The national school lunch program serves around 30 million children. About 20 million of those students qualify for free lunches, and 2 million qualify for a reduced price lunch of 40 cents.

The roughly 8 million remaining pay the regular price determined by local districts. Students with unpaid meal charges are the ones affected by lunch shaming.

The USDA report from a few years ago said lost revenue from unpaid meals tended to represent a tiny percentage of a school food program’s overall spending.

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