School Lunch Shaming Is Dangerous for Children and Needs to Stop

School Lunch Shaming Is Dangerous for Children and Needs to Stop

Many schools shame students who can’t pay in an attempt to reduce school lunch debt. This is harmful to students and needs to stop.

Lunch is something most of us are fortunate to take for granted. Teachers see firsthand this isn’t the case for everyone. Many children in the United States don’t have enough food. For these kids, eating at school might be the only nourishment they get that day. However, many school districts have cracked down and are no longer allowing students who can’t afford to pay access to a meal. 

According to CBS News, Kimberly Aiken’s daughter was denied lunch in Orange City, Florida because she owed fifteen cents. The girl was on the free lunch program, but the cashier said the balance was from the previous school year. Because the girl didn’t have any cash on her, the cashier took the lunch and threw it away. “You want to make sure that your kids are coming to school, and they’re going to be taken care of,” Aiken said. “We already have all of the scary things happening, but the one thing you don’t want them to worry about is are they going to be able to eat when they go to lunch?”

What is lunch shaming?

Publically throwing away a child’s lunch when there is a balance on the account is such a common occurrence it’s been coined “lunch shaming.”  Other forms of lunch shaming include providing children with an alternative and less desirable lunch, such as a plain cheese sandwich and water, or writing on the student’s hand with a marker. A school in Alabama uses a stamp that says “I need lunch money” on children’s hands. A Utah school threw away 40 hot lunches instead of feeding them to hungry elementary school students in one day during a crackdown of accounts with balances. These are all tactics that embarrass the child in an attempt to shame them and their parents into paying lunch fees. These practices are widespread according to a 2014 Department of Agriculture report, which stated nearly half of school districts in the United States have some sort of lunch shaming policy.

Why Don’t Students Have Money for Lunch?

The balances occur on the accounts for many reasons. There could be a computer glitch or paperwork error showing a student owes who doesn’t. The family might make pennies too much to qualify for free or reduced lunch, but not have money for food. The family might suddenly be going through a tough financial time. Sometimes abusive caregivers withhold food or lunch money as punishment. Perhaps the parents simply forgot to send money. None of these are reasons for a child to be shamed or to go hungry. 

Problems with lunch shaming:

Embarrassing students isn’t the only problem with “lunch shaming.” The Food Research and Action Center says school lunch is an essential part of student health and wellbeing. This is especially true for low-income students. Having lunch (and breakfast when possible) at school helps make sure these students have the appropriate nutrition needed to learn during the school day. Access to school lunch has been research-proven to reduce food insecurity, poor health, and rates of obesity. Additionally, in many cases, school lunch is the only time low-income students have access to fruit and vegetables. 

What are the alternatives?

Schools refusing to feed students lunch is also a distraction for teachers as we care about our students and take on the emotional burden when they don’t have lunch. Many teachers keep bread, peanut butter (or sun butter), jelly, fruit, crackers and granola bars in their classrooms for hungry students at their own expense. Many communities have raised money to wipe out school lunch debt. Two teenage boys in Palm Beach County, Florida started School Lunch Fairy, a nonprofit that has raised $70K to erase school lunch debt. However, students shouldn’t need to be at the mercy of kind people in their community or a teacher digging into her own budget to make sure they have enough food to fuel them through the day. 

Children shouldn’t have to fear being shamed because of their inability to pay for lunch. No student should have to go through the day hungry. All students deserve to be fed. Students who aren’t hungry or worried about lunch have fewer behavior issues, higher attendance rates, better test scores and higher capacity for learning. Many school districts, including in Atlanta, are integrating free breakfast and lunch for all students. Hopefully, this will soon be the norm across the country. 

School Lunch Shaming Is Dangerous for Children and Needs to Stop

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Rachael Moshman
Rachael Moshman, M.Ed. is a mom, educator, writer, and advocate for self-confidence. She’s been a teacher in classrooms of infants through adult college students. She loves pizza, Netflix and yoga.
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