Each day, sometimes twice a day, children line up at the school cafeteria. They eagerly chat about which meal they are going to order; the burger, french toast, or fruit salad all sound good! Once they get to the cashier, the mood quickly changes. It becomes embarrassment and horror as they are labeled with debt when the register flashed with a negative balance. To add to this, the meal that excites them is taken away. It is replaced with a simple sandwich made from two pieces of white bread and a slice of American cheese. This bullying happens more often than not, and is a little known issue in the United States. Without a doubt this bullying due to lack of funding is unacceptable, and breaks our hearts at Unified Caring Association (UCA). We would like to raise awareness about this form of bullying.
What is school lunch debt shaming?
“Lunch Shaming” refers to identifying and placing a stigma on a student who does not have money to buy a school meal. This is often referring to children in K-12th grade, who get their breakfast or lunch at school. “While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) narrowly applies this overt identification to students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch, in practice legal lunch shaming occurs against students whose family income exceeds free or reduced lunch eligibility thresholds.” (American Bar Association) Lunch debt shaming’s purpose is to embarrass a student and subsequently their parent(s) so that the debt is paid quickly, making it so that the school has less financial burden. Both students who do not qualify for free school meals through the National School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program but qualify for reduced-price school meals $0.30/day (breakfast) and $0.40/day (lunch) or those that do not qualify for subsidised meal programs can accrue lunch debt.
It comes in many forms…
Think about the memes where people take pictures of their pets with signs shaming them for what they did wong, such as chewing up all the toilet paper rolls in the bathroom. Or, like this one below:
Now apply this tactic to an elementary school kid. Their hand now has a stamp stating “Not Enough Money.” Less funny? We would agree.
Other stories that can be found in the news include throwing the child’s meal away after it had been served if they cannot pay. It appears that some schools even offer different meals to the children who have school lunch debt, such as PBJ’s instead of the hot meal. Or, there have been reports of schools barring the kids with lunch debt from participating in afterschool activities. Or threatening the kids with other actions such as placing them in foster care. These unacceptable actions vary because there is no set baselines for unpaid meal fees in the meal programs’ policies for the school districts by The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
How can we solve it?
There are so many ways that we can help solve the issue of school lunch debt. Jeffery Lew gives a great summary on how we can be more proactive in the short and long term in eliminating lunch debt shaming. Lew suggests being active in raising funds through crowdfunding, such as Go Fund Me, to help those in immediate need. Other ways are by the schools notifying the parents of the student meal accounts. This can be done by paper notifications sent home with the kids, or by email. Some schools can even set up automatic notifications to the parents’ mobile devices.
Overall, Lew sums it up when he comments how kids and debt should not be in the same sentence. And bullying children to get a message to the parents is unacceptable. With a supportive, inclusive, and caring community we can help remove lunch shaming debt from schools, we can further focus on growing caring children.