In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, an area with a poverty rate of 13.8 percent, about 1,000 families received letters in August warning that unless their arrears were paid in full, they could be taken to Dependency Court for negligence. “The result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care,” threatened the missive, which was sent a month before the 2019-2020 school year began. The total owed, the district reported, was more than $22,000.
Meanwhile, in Richfield, Minnesota, where arrears totaled almost $20,000, 40 Richfield High School students — some of whom owed as little as $15 in meal fees — were given cold sandwiches after their hot lunches were tossed in the trash.
This phenomenon is so pervasive that it has a name: lunch shaming. It refers to a particular set of humiliating behaviors, most typically verbal taunts or threats, that are lobbed by school personnel after a caretaking adult falls behind in paying for a child’s breakfast, lunch or after-school snack. It can take a variety of forms and sometimes targets the blameless child and sometimes targets the adults, both of whom are victims of penury.
Some school districts have stamped students’ arms with the words “I need lunch money,” or have placed a neon sheet on lunch trays with the same blaring message. Others have barred students who owe money from wearing a cap and gown at graduation, while still others have kept students from participating in extracurricular activities, including prom.
The goal, of course, is to get families to pay up, and fast — something that is often impossible and puts them at odds with their equally cash-strapped schools. In fact, the School Nutrition Association estimates that 75 percent of U.S. school districts have gone into the red because of an explosion of school meal debt.
In recent years, the issue has captured media notice (and great hoopla) when local businesspeople, philanthropists or regular folks with a bit of extra cash have stepped in to pay what’s owed. Nonetheless, food justice activists and educators know that this is not a solution. Instead, they are demanding systemic change in how meals are delivered to the nation’s children and are championing the Universal School Meals Act, federal legislation mandating the provision of nutritious food to every public school student, regardless of family income.
School Meals Have a Long History
The Act — sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) — builds on a longstanding but never wholly adequate school meals program. What’s more, it recognizes that although schools have been providing food to students since 1946, meal delivery could be better and more equitably organized.
One of the major issues, Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations at the School Nutrition Association, told Truthout, is that federal policy limits how meal programs are funded and administered. For example, she reports that “meal programs have to be paid for through federal reimbursement and meal sales alone, separate and apart from the general school district budget.”
This, she continues, has led to severe difficulties, allowing large deficits to develop when meal fees go unpaid. In fact, federal law mandates that uncollected charges be written off as “bad debt” and further stipulates that the district cover what’s owed through private donations, parent-teacher association fundraisers or other revenue.
But before delving into this further, let’s look at the way the school meals program is organized, how it functions and who it serves.
Currently, approximately 100,000 schools feed 29.7 million students a day: 20.2 million receive free lunches; 1.8 million pay a reduced fee; and 7.7 million pay full price. The total annual cost of running the program is $13.83 billion.
To qualify for a free lunch, families must fill out forms and prove that they are at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold, which is $25,750 for a household of four. Those between 131 and 185 percent (earning between $33,475 and $47,638 for four people) qualify for reduced-fee lunches costing 40 cents a meal. Districts have free rein in setting what is charged for full-cost meals for those whose incomes exceed these amounts.
School meals are under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; during this academic year schools receive reimbursement of $3.41 for every free lunch; $3.01 for each reduced-fee lunch; and 32 cents for every full-price meal served. In addition, in districts where at least 40 percent of the students qualify for no-cost meals, school administrators can apply to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP provides free meals to every enrolled student in high-poverty areas, regardless of family income. The 5-year-old program distributes breakfast and lunch to 13.6 million kids a day in 28,614 schools.
“CEP has been a game changer,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research and Action Center. “It has revolutionized school meal provision in places where it has been implemented.”
But it is still a far cry from universal access to no-cost meals.
Emotional Toll of Shaming
For their part, students simply want decent-tasting, nutritious food at mealtimes, regardless of their living situation or household circumstances. And needless to say, they are appalled by lunch shaming and recognize the pain it causes.
One of the major impacts of the humiliation is seen in the classroom, where shamed students often have trouble focusing. “Some kids who are shamed at school won’t want to go anymore,” New York City art psychotherapist Nazarena Cordero told Truthout. “They may not want to be seen or may develop a social anxiety. Some won’t want to speak in public, fearful that if they say the wrong thing, they’ll be considered silly or ignorant. In addition, you can’t concentrate if you’re hungry and may feel dizzy, faint or weak in class.”
Chloe Bland, chair of the psychology department at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey, adds that shaming a child “damages the whole climate and culture of a school,” not just for the shamed child, but for those who witness a peer being belittled. According to Bland, this can reinforce a “social pecking order.”
“Kids learn by watching how adults behave. When they see the have-nots being shamed, it creates a model that they internalize,” Bland told Truthout. “For the kids being targeted, it’s likely that they’ll go into a fight-or-flight response, which will compromise their cognitive abilities; they may not be open to learning for the rest of that day.”
Diane Nilan is president of HEAR US Inc., a 14-year-old organization that works to give voice and visibility to children and youth experiencing homelessness. Nilan notes another problem: how kids qualify for free or reduced-fee meals. On paper, she says, children who are homeless, or whose parents receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or food stamps, are automatically eligible for free school meals. But they do not always receive them.
As a case in point, Nilan describes a recent visit to the relatively affluent town of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where she met with the district liaison for homeless families. “I was told that two children had been identified as homeless,” Nilan said. “I then went to the food pantry in Cherry Hill and met many parents and grandparents who were living doubled up with school-aged kids. We asked them if they knew that their kids were eligible for a free school lunch. Many did not, and reported that their kids had been shamed for being poor.”
Nilan notes that poverty shaming sticks with recipients. “Someone who was shamed decades back will remember it,” she said.
Another issue is immigration status. Even though school meals are exempt from “public charge” consideration — rules that bar immigrants from receiving any type of public welfare benefits — Nilan reports that noncitizens are often fearful of filling out the required paperwork to secure no-cost meals.
But the clincher, Nilan concludes, is the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the food stamp program, also known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Under the proposed plan, the standard utility deduction will be reduced and all able-bodied adults will need to work in exchange for benefits, a change that will impact nearly 700,000 people. Even more significant, Nilan notes that 1 million kids could lose their automatic eligibility for free or reduced-fee meals if their families are knocked off the program. The Trump proposal also changes the ways states certify people for SNAP benefits: for instance, requiring an in-person appearance at a local office, rather than completing a recertification form online.
Pushback at the State and Federal Levels
Several states have stepped into the fray and are not only opposing the SNAP cutbacks, but are working to end both lunch shaming and hunger more generally.
New Mexico was the first to take the leap, passing the Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights in April 2017. The bill makes it illegal for a school to require students to mop floors, clean tables, set up chairs or otherwise be singled out in exchange for food. California followed suit a month later and mandated that schools stop penalizing students whose parents were in debt. Several other states, including Texas, Virginia, Washington and Oregon, have also passed legislation to protect students from harassment.
The Student Success Act, passed by the Oregon legislature in May 2019, allows students whose household incomes are below 300 percent of federal poverty guidelines ($50,730 for a two-person and $77,250 for a four-person family) to eat in school for free.
According to Charles Boyle, press secretary for the office of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, “The 2020 budget aimed to address Oregon’s underfunded education system with a $2 billion education investment package. The Student Success Act responded to a call from educators and parents to meet the critical needs of students and our schools.” The bill provides for smaller classes, more school counselors and increased access to no-cost meals — all of it paid for through a new corporate activity tax on commercial activity in excess of $1 million. Boyce reports that the tax is expected to raise approximately $1 billion a year.
Still, state efforts, no matter how impressive, sidestep the larger issue of food insecurity that exists throughout the U.S.
“We strongly believe that school meals are as important as teachers and textbooks,” Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association told Truthout.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten agrees. “Lunch shaming converts what should be a safe and welcoming school environment to one that is hostile and punitive,” she told Truthout in an email. “Instead of hurting kids, we need to ensure that school budgets meet their needs.”
The Universal School Meals Program Act, introduced in October by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar, would do just that and would provide free breakfast, lunch and dinner to every student, regardless of family income. While critics have dubbed the idea a pie-in-the-sky pipedream, a Sanders spokesperson told Truthout that paying for the program is not an issue, noting that if we collected one-third of the unpaid taxes owed by the top 1 percent, we could fund universal school meals for hungry kids as well as a Green New Deal.
It’s simply a question of will — and of priorities.