Lunch Shaming Is The Worst Thing Schools Are Doing To Poor Kids
Unpaid Meal Charges
The goal of the school meal programs is to provide nutritious meals to children during the school day. Children may receive breakfast and lunch at no cost to them if they are categorically eligible for free meals or if they qualify for free meals based on Federal poverty guidelines. Sometimes children who do not qualify based on these standards would like a breakfast or lunch, but do not have money in their account or in-hand to cover the cost of the meal at the time of the meal service. FNS recognizes that unpaid meal charges represent a difficult and complex issue directly impacting the schools participating in our programs, as well as the children they serve. We are sensitive to the fact that local officials must balance their desire to provide for hungry children lacking the means to pay for meals with the demands of maintaining the financial viability of their school food service operation.
FNS greatly appreciates the efforts of local officials working to overcome this challenge in communities nationwide. This section of our website includes policy guidance, best practice resources, and other tools state agencies and local program operators can use in their efforts to overcome the challenge of unpaid meal charges. Looking ahead, FNS will continue to gather grassroots input on the current policies and practices of the state and local agencies that administer the school meal programs, and will use this information to continually update and improve our guidance on unpaid meal charges. Our overarching goal is to provide practical guidance that meets the needs of schools, families, and children. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, required USDA to examine and report on current charge and alternate meal policies and practices of state agencies and local educational agencies.
HHFKA also required USDA to report on the feasibility of establishing national standards for such policies and, if applicable, make recommendations for implementation. To complete the Report to Congress, FNS included questions about charge and alternate meal policies in a multi-year, nationally representative study and issued a Request for Information entitled Unpaid Meal Charges.
Warwick, Rhode Island schools under fire for giving jelly sandwiches to kids with lunch debt
Starting Monday, any student with unpaid lunch debt will be automatically given a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich instead of hot food, the city’s school district announced Sunday. In 2016, a lunch worker in Pennsylvania quit in protest after she was forced to refuse a hot meal to a student because he couldn’t pay for it. In Rhode Island, legislation requiring all students to receive the same hot lunch regardless of their financial circumstances is pending, according to the Journal. In December, officials in Cranston, which neighbors Warwick, were widely criticized for hiring a collection agency to track down families with outstanding school lunch debt. Karen Bachus, the Warwick School Committee’s chairwoman, told the Journal that the district is owed more than $40,000 in lunch money.
Nationwide, concerned parents and community members have taken matters into their own hands, fearing that students will be bullied when their classmates discover that they can’t afford lunch or struggle to concentrate in class because they’re hungry. In 2016, writer Ashley C. Ford inspired her Twitter followers to wipe out over $100,000 of outstanding lunch debt in Minneapolis schools. In March 2018, reports began circulating that a student in the neighboring town of West Warwick had his lunch thrown away by a cafeteria worker because he didn’t have enough money in his account. Administrators in West Warwick were happy to accept her donation of $4,000 and apply it to students’ accounts, Penta told WPRI.
That district, which is separate from Warwick Public Schools, also announced that students would no longer be denied a hot meal based on their ability to pay. On Sunday, Penta wrote on Facebook that she had met twice with district officials about paying off students’ lunch debt and tried to offer them an additional $4,000. As a result, the recent news that students who couldn’t afford lunch would be getting a cold sandwich came as a blow to her. Administrators also noted they had suggested that Penta should create a program to decide which students would have their lunch debt erased, and review the applications herself.
3 things you can do to stop student lunch shaming
The problem of school lunch debt, or the debt students acquire when they cannot pay for their school lunches, drew national attention back in 2015 when a Colorado cafeteria worker was fired for giving food away to hungry students who didn’t qualify for a free or reduced lunch. After hearing about the problem on CNN last year, Jeffrey Lew, a concerned father from Washington, took action by starting a campaign on GoFundMe, the success of which surprised even him: within five days he had raised $50,000 to pay off lunch debt in the Seattle Public Schools district and two other districts in the state. Now a self-proclaimed school lunch shaming and debt activist, Lew wanted to start another campaign that would eliminate all lunch debt for every Washington school district. School lunch shaming has garnered enough public criticism to attract the attention of political leaders. In 2017, New Mexico state senator Michael Padilla wrote legislation that banned school lunch shaming practices, inspiring a wave of similar bills in state and federal legislatures.
One effort helped raise more than $100,000 for lunch debt in the Minneapolis Public Schools district. Making school lunch debt common knowledge is a central part of Lew’s strategy. In the last two years, the crowdfunding site GoFundMe has helped raise more than $500,000 to pay off schools’ lunch debt. If you choose the latter, Lew suggests first calling your school district and asking if they have families with school lunch debt, how much they owe, and if there are any existing campaigns to address it. Though viral stories about lunch shaming often cast school administrators in an unflattering or even villainous light, the crux of the problem is that schools are almost always between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their budgets.
When parents don’t or can’t pay for their child’s school lunch, and the student hasn’t been enrolled in a free or reduced lunch program, a school can rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the school district. Push for federal legislation that bans school lunch shaming and increases funding for reduced and free lunch programs.