Lunch Shaming: How Is This Happening?

By Cindy Schwartz, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Secondary Education

Let’s take a look at a subject many educators may be unaware: lunch shaming.

In 2016, an 8-year-old child in Alabama received a stamp on his arm from a cafeteria worker in his lunchroom, a stamp on his arm that read, “I need lunch money.”

This child’s lunch account at the school had $1.38 left. The account was not in the negative.

The stamping of this child’s arm was a message to his parents and/or guardians that they needed to put more money into this child’s lunch account or he could be denied lunch in the future. Additionally, a 2019 article from The National Education Association revealed that a Pennsylvania school district recently sent letters to the parents of 1,000 students with unpaid lunch debt. The district threatened to charge these parents with negligence which they said might result in “your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

Even the Showtime show Shameless addressed the issue in their newest season when the character Liam, a student on the South Side of Chicago, offered free, homemade lunches to his fellow students when his school forced kids who owed money to wear badges saying they had ‘lunch debt’.

Yes, the issue of “lunch shaming” is front and center.

We wonder how this is happening in our country as we move toward including more social and emotional learning awareness into our curriculums.

How can shaming a child ever be helpful in any way to accomplish anything?

What Is Lunch Shaming and How Does This Happen?

First, let’s define “lunch shaming.” Lunch shaming is the practice of denying lunch or providing low-cost meals to students with unpaid lunch bills. According to the School Nutrition Association, at the end of the 2019 school year, about 75% of schools in the United States reported students who ended the year owing large sums for lunches.

And let’s just add this important fact: one in six children live with hunger in America.

So, it appears that lunch debt is as challenging an issue as is hunger in the United States.

But why do families have unpaid lunch charges?

There are lots of reasons. Just because a family doesn’t qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced price lunches under the National School Lunch Program doesn’t mean that the family can afford lunch every day for their child. Many families struggle to make ends meet and were hit hard by the recession of 2008 and the current pandemic, but because their incomes are above the poverty level, they do not qualify for federal help.

Families may also not be able to pay their child’s lunch bills because they feel there is a stigma attached to even asking for help or filling out paperwork to see if they might qualify for federal assistance. Cultural mores and beliefs might be getting in the way of reaching out for assistance.

How Does Lunch Shaming Affect Our Students?

American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his famed “hierarchy  of needs” to address this very issue.

According to Maslow, human beings cannot reach self-actualization, which is achieving one’s greatest potential, if basic physiological and emotional needs are not met first. So a child’s basic need for food, shelter, sleep, and clothing must be satisfied before a child can receive love and emotional support. If both a child’s physiological and psychological needs are met, then the child or individual is able to move into the realm of cultivating self-esteem and ultimately, self-actualization.

In other words, if a child is hungry and tired and cold, that child will be incapable of performing well at school. It’s as simple as that.

Is Anything Being Done?

In 2017, New Mexico became the first state to address and eliminate the issue of “ lunch shaming” with the passage of the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights. This law requires schools to enroll eligible kids into the free and reduced meal program if their guardians have not and provide all students with a healthy meal.

Here’s what the law does:

  • Requires that schools must enroll eligible kids into the free and reduced meal program if their guardians have not
  • Requires that schools provide all students with a health meal
  • Expressly prohibits publicly embarrassing students whose families cannot pay

Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) introduced new federal legislation addressing the issue of “lunch shaming in both 2017 and 2019. The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2019 had wide bipartisan support from senators like Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Senator Cory Garner (R-CO). This act has been moved to committee for consideration and, if passed, will prohibit the public identification or stigmatization of a child with outstanding lunch debt or a child who is unable to pay for meals under the National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program. No school in the country would be allowed to single out children with lunch debt with hand stamps, wristbands, alternative meals, or by assigning chores not required of students generally.

But here is the challenge: as of today, there are 28 bills that the Senate is sitting on that will help children. We hope that this bill moves out of committee for full consideration by both houses of Congress.

While this bill moves through committee in Congress, 15 states as of 2019 have passed laws that address how schools handle lunch debt.

And we acknowledge that school lunch debt is clearly problematic for school districts. For example, the school district of Cranston in Rhode Island recently reported that their school lunch debt is about $90,000 and that they had to start using a debt collector company to help them retrieve money owed the district.

Perhaps there is no easy solution at this time other than to acknowledge that if we are truly desirous of addressing the emotional and social needs of our students, then the last thing we want to do is shame them when they are hungry.

We hope that today’s post has provided you with a window into the physiological, social and emotional needs of your students. Does this issue resonate with you? Do you have any other information that could help other educators become more aware of “lunch shaming”? Share your thoughts in the comments.

This blog post has been adapted from this week’s Attentive Teaching podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and other major podcast platforms.

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