The Lunch Shaming Movement in Middle Schools
When Denver stopped lunch-shaming, debt from unpaid meals skyrocketed
Denver’s exploding meal debt – amounting to roughly 900 unpaid lunches every school day of the year – illustrates the balancing act districts nationwide face amid growing public support for policies prohibiting lunch-shaming. The school lunch debt is one reason Denver district officials quietly introduced snacks such as Doritos and Rice Krispies Treats in elementary school cafeteria lines late this past winter. Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, said she hasn’t yet heard of another district with a debt increase the size of Denver’s following the introduction of a lunch-shaming prevention policy. Nearly one-third of the district’s lunch debt last year came from families who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but signed up part-way into the school year, after their children had already received free school lunches. Last year, in addition to adding new revenue-generating snacks in elementary schools, the district tried to recoup the debt by making weekly robocalls to parents, working with principals to do outreach to families, and in some cases sending letters home with students.
Most districts nationwide accrue some debt for unpaid meals. A 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association found that three-quarters of school districts rack up unpaid meal debt, up slightly from 71 percent two years before. In Denver, the amount of lunch debt ranges widely by school, with some accruing less than $50 and others accruing thousands. Omar D. Blair Charter School had the highest lunch debt among Denver schools last year at $11,500.
At Shoemaker, where two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Kitchen Manager Chris Juarez said he believes much of the school’s $4,000 in lunch debt came from families who would have qualified for subsidized lunches but didn’t apply. A 2017 Denver school board resolution specified that the district does not collect or maintain any information on students’ immigration status. A district grant of $100,000 paid off lunch debt from students who were eventually eligible for free or reduced-price lunch last school year but whose parents may not have signed up right away.
Tennessee considers bill to prevent lunch shaming
The bill would also prohibit schools from singling out students through means such as requiring them to wear something to identify their status, mandating chores to pay for meals and keeping them from participating in activities, Fox17 News reports. The bill, which is slated to go before subcommittees this month, is designed to ensure students won’t go hungry and that schools don’t hold children of any age accountable for school meal debts. While the bill would prevent parents from paying any fees or costs related to debt collection, it does allow schools to contact parents regarding debt payment. School meals not only meet student’s physical needs, but they also have been found to boost academic performance. While schools serving low-income students are increasingly taking advantage of the National School Lunch Program’s Community Eligibility Provision – which allows all students to eat for free – most schools still have some who qualify for free or reduced-price meals and others that don’t.
While the results of that initiative are still to new to evaluate, other states and districts with similar initiatives are beginning to reconsider the idea in light of increasing school lunch debt. The Warwick School Committee in Warwick, Rhode Island, is taking another look at efforts to reduce lunch shaming because unpaid lunch fees increased by 500% in a single year. The Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas is also reconsidering their more generous school lunch policy as they have amassed $16,500 in unpaid bills in four short months. An article published by The New Food Economy in January notes that school lunch debt has sky-rocketed across the nation, though the total figure is unknown because the data is not collected. According to the School Nutrition Association, 75% of school districts in the nation had unpaid meal debt in 2018.
While students need to be able to eat without feeling shame, school districts also must be able to balance their nutrition budgets without dipping into the school district’s general fund. While the Tennessee bill, like others before it, has a noble purpose in mind, it does not offer any solutions as to how school districts can handle the unpaid debt.
End the humiliating practice of “lunch shaming”
It’s disgraceful, unbelievable and barbaric: branding kids with ink stamps, Sharpie markers or wrist bands, throwing perfectly good hot food in the trash, making children to perform janitorial duties or simply forcing kids to go hungry – all because their parents cannot afford to pay for lunch. We cannot count on the cruel and heartless Trump-DeVos administration to protect children at our schools, but recent action in Congress could stop this appalling practice once and for all. Progressive champion Rep. Rosa DeLauro has introduced legislation with her colleagues in both the House and Senate to end lunch shaming and ensure all children have access to a meal, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay. News stories in the last few months detail young children – many who have language barrier issues – being shamefully singled out in school in front of their peers and forced to undergo public humiliation because of an unpaid lunch debt owed to the school. 1 These students have absolutely no control over their families’ finances, yet school administrators are abusing these children because of their parents’ inability to pay.
A recent study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that nearly half of all school districts in the country practice some form of lunch shaming. 2 And while some states like New Mexico have taken local action to stop these practices, federal law currently does not prohibit schools from stigmatizing students in this way, allowing schools to continue shaming children for no fault of their own.3. Prohibit schools from stigmatizing children with hand stamps, wristbands or other public means;. Prevent schools from forcing children to perform chores in order to receive a meal;. Require all communications regarding lunch bills be directed to parents or guardians instead of children.
The USDA has given states until July to establish policies for dealing with unpaid school lunch debt, but its guidance does not prohibit these shaming practices. We must act now to ensure Congress establishes a nationwide standard to prevent lunch shaming for good and never allow another child to be humiliated again.
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