Our Take

This School Year, Let’s End Lunch Shaming

Back-to-school is an exciting time for many families. Whether it’s shopping for fresh supplies or checking class lists to search for the names of best friends, kids get excited. It is also a time when anything seems possible. Whatever challenges happened last year are in the past. The new year holds endless possibility.

In the spirit of possibility, let’s consider some healthy resolutions for 2018-19. Here’s one that shouldn’t be hard to agree with: This year, why don’t we stop shaming kids who cannot pay for their lunches?

You might be surprised to find out that lunch shaming is even a thing. Oh, but it is. In cafeterias across the country, when a child comes through the lunch line and owes money to the school, that child is given a different meal than the others. Often, with significant ceremony, the lunch they have already gotten is taken away and replaced with the absolute minimum required to meet the definition of “meal” – like some American cheese between white bread slices. Or a few graham crackers. The goal is to send a strong message to the child and family to pay up. Meanwhile, everybody in the lunch room is treated to a front row seat of a child’s humiliation.

Lunch shaming seems like a folk tale you would hear from older relatives who lived through the deprivation of the Great Depression or the era of disciplinary paddling in schools (also still a thing!). You might figure it is about as true as your grandfather walking uphill both ways to school. It is difficult to believe that these practices, which openly and deliberately humiliate elementary school children and corrode the critical bond of trust they have with adults in the school, are standard operating procedure in 2018.

Why on earth would we be deputizing untrained school personnel to serve as bill collectors in their interactions with students? And what about the kids, who may be too young to sit in a car without a booster seat but apparently can represent their families in financial matters? How did that get decided?

These would be good questions to ask members of the Louisiana State Senate who voted against an anti-shaming bill that came before the Education Committee in April. The bill failed. According to news accounts, one advocate testified that debtor children were only given “gentle reminders” to pay up after all other avenues had been exhausted, and that their cheese sandwiches were “made with love.” (I am not making that up, check the link.)

In Massachusetts, a similar bill was tabled for further study, effectively killing it. An opponent of the bill who heads the Commonwealth’s school nutrition association asked with exasperation how else schools were supposed to collect money owed for lunches if child-shaming was prohibited.

Since when did “go after kids” become the only idea we can come up with? Let’s hope that Visa does not catch wind of this, because if it is ok to embarrass children to squeeze a few dollars out of their parents, imagine what a credit card company would do to collect many times that amount. Next thing you know, the repo man will start coming after bikes locked up at school racks.

Thankfully, a number of other states have made more progress. The solution is pretty simple: If parents owe the school money, go talk to the parents about it. If they qualify for free lunch and just have not done the paperwork, help them do it. After all, these are the adults in charge of family finances. They are the ones who pay the bills. But let’s leave the kids out of it. A child whose parents cannot afford food has way more reminders about that on a daily basis than any kid needs. We can do without schools reinforcing the message in front of the whole world. It’s not a “gentle reminder,” it’s piling on. It’s a disgrace to everything that educators stand for. Let’s resolve not to tolerate any part of it.