Kids Who Can't Afford Lunch Still Face Public Shaming

by Annamarya Scaccia

For millions of children in the United States, school is the one of the few places where they can get a warm meal. Often kids turn to their school cafeterias for breakfast and lunch because they face food insecurity at home. Yet many schools across the country publicly shame students if their meal accounts carry an outstanding balance. But starting this month, school districts will now be required to stop schools from shaming poor kids who have unpaid debts.

According to The Spokesman-Review, school districts are now required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt new policies that address meal debts without humiliating students. The new requirement doesn't ban lunch shaming outright, but it does "encourage schools to work more closely with parents" to rectify outstanding meal balances, such as texting or calling the parent, and make sure kids aren't made to starve, The Spokesman-Review reported.

Food shaming tactics can run the gamut. According to The New York Times, schools will stamp a student's arm with "I Need Lunch Money," dump their meals in the trash, or replace their hot lunch with a cheese sandwich if they have an unpaid bill. One cafeteria worker in Pennsylvania quit her job because she was forced to humiliate children who couldn't afford their meal, The New York Times reported.

Lunch shaming affects all students, but takes a toll on children from low-income families the most. According to Feeding America, 13 millions children — or 1 in 6 kids — live in food insecure households, meaning they lack consistent access to adequate meals. Feeding America also reported that, of the families it served in 2014, nearly three-quarters lived at or below the federal poverty line, earning less than $9,200 a year.

Schools who actively shame students because they can't afford to eat help stigmatize poverty. As noted by PBS, the USDA's free and reduced-price meal program helps students from very low-income households. But poor students who aren't eligible for assistance are continually subjected to shaming tactics that leave them hungry and are harmful to their health.

Some states have recognized how devastating lunch shaming can be. In April, New Mexico became the first state to outlaw the practice, and instead, calls for other measures to settle unpaid meal debts such as withholding a transcript or parking pass, according to The New York Times. Lawmakers have introduced similar measures in other states, such as Texas and Oregon. There is also a federal bill under consideration that tackles lunch-shaming, although a closer reading of the legislation reveals that it wouldn't ban schools from given alternate meals or denying food to children who have a balance, according to Civil Eats.

There are many ways that school districts can stop schools from shaming poor children who can't afford lunch. Children are not responsible for what money goes into their account, and shouldn't be publicly shamed because their family is struggling financially. If schools truly care about the students they've promised to protect, they wouldn't put their physical or emotional health at risk.