Lunchtime at school is supposed to be the part of a kid’s day where they can spend time with their friends, laugh, have fun, and hopefully eat a nutritious meal while they are at it. But in some schools across the country, administrators and staff have made the school cafeteria a hostile space by humiliating children who are unable to pay for lunch.
While it might be hard to imagine this happening in places that are supposed to be nurturing, the growing trend of schools using tactics to embarrass students who are unable to pay for lunch is commonly referred to as “lunch-shaming” – and it’s appalling.
As early as pre-school, schools are discriminating against students who can’t afford to eat. Schools in Seattle offer a “modified meal” for students who have over $15 in lunch debt, while others require students to wear a wristband or do chores to get a warm meal. No matter what form it takes, the bottom line is these practices are discriminatory and harmful to children.
I understand food is not free, and schools have to pay for the meals they provide, but no one should be made to feel they don’t belong at school – especially by the adults who work there. The psychological toll on kids far outweighs the economic cost to schools. This kind of trauma has adverse effects on kids, and studies have shown students’ academic performance suffers when they are discriminated against or made to feel vulnerable in school. These unfair practices undermine the fundamental reason kids are in school in the first place – to learn.
Students excel when they feel supported by the people around them, connected to their communities, and know they inherently belong – but lunch-shaming chips away at all of that. Fortunately, everyone can do something to help – even if you don’t work in a school setting or in education at all.
In May, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) introduced the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 to stop these practices, but public citizens are moving the needle too. Communities across the country have started crowdfunding efforts to help pay off students’ overdue lunch balances, and donors in Minnesota raised as much as $100,000 for the cause earlier this year! With 75 percent of schools reporting unpaid lunch debt at the end of the 2015-2016 school year according to the School Nutrition Association, there’s clearly a tremendous need that has yet to be addressed.
Everyone can play a role in fostering a sense of belonging for kids and fighting discrimination. For more on lunch-shaming and how you can help fight back, visit the Food Research & Action Center here.