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Can We Stop Kids From Being Shamed Over School Lunch Debt?

An Alabama elementary school stamps a child’s arm with the message: “I need lunch money.” A Minnesota school district warns graduating seniors that they will not receive caps and gowns unless their meal debt is paid. A New Hampshire cafeteria worker is fired for serving students with outstanding lunch bills.

These are all examples of lunch shaming, a practice that may vary depending on the context, but which has persisted for years. Outcry about the issue has grown louder since the Great Recession, when a number of school districts found themselves in a financial crunch and began using punitive measures to settle meal debt.

…Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law & Poverty in California, said schools routinely send bill collectors after families, but she questions whether student privacy laws are being broken in the process.

“There’s a real problem with a school that gives a third party information about a child and the child’s debt,” she said. “The information would have to include the name of the child and the action that caused the debt—and would also have to include the address of the person responsible for the child.”

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