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Kids with School Lunch Debt Still Face Lunch-Shaming, Despite Outrage

A review of school districts’ policies finds slow and inconsistent change in ending lunch shaming.

When New Mexico passed the first comprehensive law banning lunch shaming last April, the state made visible what anti-hunger advocates, school food professionals, and lower-income families have known for decades: Children with school-meal debt can be stigmatized in the cafeteria.

If social media is any guide, the idea of singling out kids with unpaid balances—by making them do chores, denying them a meal, serving them a cold cheese sandwich, or stamping their arms or hands—has been met with almost universal disapproval.

And while the recent coverage has lead to an apparent uptick in private philanthropy efforts to cover families’ meal debt—including one to honor Philando Castile’s legacy by paying off the lunch debt at his school—the question remains: Has the moral outrage by politicians, celebrities, and ordinary citizens done anything to meaningfully curb lunch shaming?

A recent survey of 50 large districts by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), an anti-hunger advocacy group, showed no significant sea change, even though districts were required for the first time to put their meal debt policies in writing by July 1.

Of the 40 districts surveyed that have written policies in place, only 13 have a policy requiring schools to serve school meals to all children regardless of ability to pay. The remaining 27 districts take a variety of approaches to meal debt, with 10 denying meals to high school students as soon as they have an outstanding balance—and some of those to middle school students as well. And 17 districts reported placing a cap on the number of regular meals served before a meal is denied, with some imposing the cap only on older children and taking a more lenient stance with those in elementary school.

The FRAC survey also found that when districts do provide meals to students who can’t pay, in many cases it’s still a cold, alternate meal such as a peanut butter sandwich. And when it comes to especially stigmatizing practices such as the use of hand stamps or wrist bands, FRAC found that “most school districts do not mention shaming acts in their policy [and] only a few have explicit language that prohibits the stigmatizing of children who cannot pay for their meals.”

FRAC reported that one district’s policy even states that kids with debt can only get a meal “in exchange for the student performing chores in the kitchen. The student must first apply and be accepted to work in order to receive the meal.”

“The more we learn about how kids are treated when their parents owe lunch money, the more obvious it becomes that national standards banning school lunch shaming are needed,”

said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which conducted similar meal debt policy research to support anti-shaming legislation in California.

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