Students Shouldn’t Be Ashamed to Eat Lunch

California lunch shaming bill should be a model for national policy

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By Bobbi Dempsey

School lunch shaming shows up in ugly ways across the United States thanks to the lack of a national policy on how to handle student lunch debt. Districts and states take different approaches to the issue, but they all have one thing in common: the stigma and embarrassment they can cause for the children involved.

This kind of shaming in front of classmates can be traumatic to a child. I know, because I was once one of those hungry students.

Lunch shaming was a hot topic again in recent weeks thanks to newsworthy actions on opposite sides of the country. The conflicting ways the issue was handled in each case illustrates the need for a national policy that puts lunch shaming to rest once and for all.

In a country as prosperous as ours, lunch debt should not even be a thing. And grade school kids saving up quarters and dimes to ensure their friends don’t go hungry definitely shouldn’t be a thing.

In mid-October, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation that prohibits “lunch shaming,” specifically banning the practice of giving a different (and generally less appealing) meal to students with lunch debt. A common tactic, this “alternate meal” practice publicly identifies and shames students, targeting them for potential ridicule and bullying from their peers.

Newsom said he was inspired to address the issue after hearing the story of Ryan Kyote, a 9-year-old boy from Napa, California, who saved up his allowance to pay off the lunch debt of his classmates.

Around the same time, a school district in New Jersey passed a new policy that would ban students with a lunch debt of more than $75 from participating in after-school activities, going on field trips, or attending the prom.

In a country as prosperous as ours, lunch debt should not even be a thing. And grade school kids saving up quarters and dimes to ensure their friends don’t go hungry definitely shouldn’t be a thing.

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Both incidents illustrate the need for a national solution. The question of how to handle school lunch tabs shouldn’t be left up to individual school boards or administrators — we need a universal standard that establishes a fair, consistent strategy for handling meal debt. Better yet, a solution that eliminates the whole concept of school lunch debt completely.

No child should have to go hungry at school or be publicly shamed because they can’t afford food — whether they live in Napa or Newark or anywhere in between.

This summer, Wyoming Valley West School District earned itself a place in the lunch-shaming hall of fame with a move that many (including myself) found reprehensible.

The district — located in northeast Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, where I live — sparked controversy by sending letters to parents who owe lunch debt, warning that their kids could be taken away and put in foster care if the parents didn’t pay up. (After initially refusing offers by a coffee company CEO and others to cover the debt, the school board soon reversed course, accepting the donation and apologizing for the letter.)

I know how those kids feel. I was a student in that district for a short time while in junior high school, when my family was way below the poverty line. We didn’t have “lunch debt” back then — I am still getting used to the fact that we live in a world where it’s a reality now — so if you didn’t have money to pay for lunch, you just didn’t eat. If your parents were able to get through all of the red tape involved and you qualified for a free or reduced lunch, you got a special ticket (and in some schools even needed to go in a separate line), which broadcast your financial situation to the entire cafeteria. Many students opted to forgo lunch to avoid that embarrassment.

Here in Pennsylvania, lawmakers had taken a significant step in the fight against lunch-shaming a few years ago. Pennsylvania passed a law in 2017 that required schools to provide any child with a meal if they wanted one, regardless of whether the student had money to pay for it. The law mandated that every student be offered the standard meal available that day — no alternate meals allowed. We have since taken a big step backward, though. An update in the state’s 2019–2020 budget allows schools to serve students alternative meals if they have an unpaid meal balance of $50 or more.

The variability in how lunch shaming is handled from year to year or place to place creates yet another situation where kids suffer the impact of income inequality, subject to proclamations made by their school district officials or local or state lawmakers.

A national policy would ensure all students are treated the same and relieve local officials of the need to address the issue. Given the Trump administration’s track record of slashing and targeting safety net programs, I doubt the solution will come from the current White House,.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have weighed in on the issue, however, taking the opportunity to spotlight areas of their platforms that would offer possible solutions. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren called lunch shaming “cruel and punitive” and said she would push to cancel school meal debt while increasing funding for school meal programs. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said he would introduce year-round, free universal school meals.

“School lunch debt should not exist in the wealthiest country in the history of the world,” Sanders said in a tweet.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker — who also supports universal free school meals — was more succinct: “No child should go hungry at school — period.”

Bobbi Dempsey is a freelance writer and a communications fellow at Community Change.