Lunch-Shaming Schoolchildren: Yes, It”s An Actual Thing

| TBS Staff

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Kids these days. Spoiled entitled snowflakes if you ask me. Back when I was a kid, we'd go days on end without eating just to prove we could do it. Now, every kid expects a hot lunch at school, even the poor kids. I think that's a bit presumptuous. If you're really paying attention in school, you'll learn pretty quickly that good things come to those who can afford them. If you don't have the money for a hot lunch, better get hustlin' kid. Those child labor laws aren't gonna break themselves.

Apparently though, there are some out there who just can't play by the rules, and we're supposed to feel bad about it. At least, that's our takeaway from a recently passed law in New Mexico that outlaws lunch-shaming.

What is lunch-shaming, you ask? Well, it's the extremely useful and not at all horrifying practice of humiliating young schoolchildren whose parents are delinquent on payments for cafeteria lunch plans.

Of course, taking a hungry kid's hot lunch and throwing it out right in front of him seems like the right thing to do, but is it? The legislation coming out of New Mexico suggests that maybe we've been doing this wrong, that maybe there's something ethically repugnant about both depriving children of a nutritious lunch while simultaneously making sure to stigmatize these children in ways that they'll almost certainly be describing to a psychotherapist one day.

Well, I hate to be that guy but, boo f'n hoo. If you can't look a young child in the face and explain that hot food is only for people with money, then maybe you need to reconsider why you got into the lunchlady business in the first place. If it wasn't to brandish the powers of a capitalist society against disadvantaged pre-adolescent children, then what was the whole point?

Who's Bright Idea Was This?

My apologies. I'm just trying to get myself into the headspace of somebody that would author a policy, or vote to support a policy, or even explain out loud to a colleague, a policy that calls for any one of the following in the event that a student's parents are in arrears on meal payments:

These are all things that happen on a state by state basis as individual schools find ways of reconciling mounting meal plan delinquencies. Yes, lunch-shaming is a real and actual thing that real and actual adults do to little kids. And believe it or not, it's pretty easy to find public officials and school administrators who are willing to defend the practice.

Take, for instance, Joe Zupancic, a member of the Canon-McMillan school board in a town called Eighty Four, Pennsylvania. In fall of 2016, his district made headlines when a compassionate elementary school cafeteria worker tendered her resignation. The district had just recently adopted a policy requiring cafeteria workers to trash hot lunches rather than serve them to students who were behind on their payments. Stacy Koltiska refused to do it, citing ethical compunction as the reason.

In comments to the Washington Post, Zupancic seemed unmoved by Koltiska's moral stand. In fact, he seemed to make the case that the new lunch-shaming policy was actually a success, at least by the metric that the district was using. He explained that “There has never been the intention with the adoption of this policy to shame or embarrass a child,” and went on to explain that “300 families owed the district between $60,000 and $100,000 annually before the policy was put in place; now there are 70 families who owe the district a total of $20,000.”

What economic strain this placed on these families, and what they were forced to sacrifice, we may never know. Zupancic noted that the policy did not affect students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, “only children whose parents had neglected to settle the bill for their meals.”

Of course, this assumes that families who don't qualify for assistance don't also struggle to make ends meet. Either way, we're not sure that improved debt collection justifies making a hungry child watch as the contents of his hot lunch are fed to a trash receptacle.

For her part, Koltiska articulates perfectly the grotesque detachment of such policy-making from its actual implementation, explaining that ““They're suits at a board meeting…They are not the ones facing a child and looking them in the eye and taking their food away.”

The State of Modern Hunger

Schools throughout the U.S. must contend with meal debt, and it is a real problem. According to the School Nutrition Association, more than three-quarters of school districts are grappling with uncollected debt. For some districts, this is a minor problem, but the New York Times says that some districts are waiting on more than $4 million in unpaid bills.

The Department of Agriculture examined the feasibility of establishing national standards for dealing with meal debt in 2010, but ultimately resolved that this was a matter best left to the states. Under these conditions, states like Texas and California have introduced anti-shaming legislation, and New Mexico became the first to actually put such a law on the books.

In April of 2017, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights, “which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance and puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children. It applies to public, private and religious schools that receive federal subsidies for students' breakfasts and lunches.”

The legislation was introduced and prodded into law by State Senator Michael Padilla who, as a child of the state's foster care system, was himself a victim of lunch-shaming. Padilla remembers the stigma of being forced to mop the cafeteria and eating paltry government-issued meals while his classmates looked on.

Speaking on the new law, Padilla charged that “In 2017, we're taking hot lunches out of a child's hands and throwing it away...These are just ridiculous things.”

What he's saying makes pretty good sense, that is, unless you live in Alabama. In June of 2016, with just days left in the school year, Jefferson County resident Jon Bivens neglected to reload the balance for his son's cafeteria meal plan. The year was nearly over, and by his calculation, there was still enough money left in the account to get through the year. Then, one afternoon in the final week of school, his 8-year-old son committed the unspeakable act of buying himself some ice cream with his meal swipe card. With just $1.38 left on his balance, the boy was unable to pay for his next lunch.

The authorities at Gardendale Elementary School did the only logical thing in this situation. They branded the child's arm with a rubber-stamped smiley face and the friendly message, “I Need Lunch Money.”

Of course, schools have other options besides branding. The New York Times reports that “in some schools, children are forced to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers to pay the debt. Other schools require cafeteria workers to take a child's hot food and throw it in the trash if he doesn't have the money to pay for it.”

All in all, the approach is largely left up to the states and, by extension, the districts themselves. Well, I hate to say this at the risk of being drawn into a discussion about deeply-rooted political philosophies, but is it really that controversial to pass a federal policy outlawing lunch-shaming? Do we really have to argue about that? Is bullying, humiliating, and stigmatizing children really the best way to collect debts from their parents? Or is it possible we just didn't think this one through clearly enough.

The fact of the matter is, left to their own resources, individual states and districts are prone to some pretty horrible decisions. This is clearly one of those. Unfortunately, schools may not offset their losses for meal plans using federal dollars. Reimbursement must be found elsewhere, either from the sale of full-priced lunches or from a district's general fund. In either instance, this is yet another area in which struggling districts experience a deepening disadvantage. Without federal oversight or assistance, it's pretty clear that poor families--those that generally struggle to feed their children both at home and at schools--are most directly impacted by the federal government's limited support.

The answer to meal debt is pretty much the same as the answer to lunch-shaming: federal oversight. This financial loss should be offset by federal funding just as lunch-shaming should be prohibited at the federal level. I'm not going to crunch the numbers for you, but believe me when I tell you that the wealthiest nation in the industrialized world can afford to offset the meal debt of hungry children. If you have a problem with spending your tax dollars on something like that, go check out the price tag on a tomahawk missile (whose only function is to eventually explode), or on the NASA space program (which has yet to successfully colonize Mars), or on the president's travel budget (and that's just for weekly trips to Florida).

Each and every one of these items, on its own, could offset the cost of an entire state's student meal debt. It really is just a question of priority. Either you think it's worth the federal government's time and money to ensure even cash-strapped students are eating lunch in school, or you feel so strongly that this is a waste of money that you'd sooner see hot meals in the trash than in students' bellies.

Starting at the Top

Obviously though, these priorities start at the top. And the “top” today seems largely on the same page as the lunch-shamers. Take, for instance, the comments from White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, who in March of 2017 defended a budget proposal that would slap after-school programs with deep funding cuts. He explained that the federal government was no longer interested in funding programs that don't show hard results.

On after-school meal programs, for instance, Mulvaney said “They're supposed to be educational programs, right? I mean, that's what they're supposed to do. They're supposed to help kids who don't get fed at home get fed so they do better in school…Guess what? There's no demonstrable evidence they're actually doing that. There's no demonstrable evidence they're actually helping results, helping kids do better in school… the way we justified it was, these programs are going to help these kids do better in school and get better jobs. And we can't prove that that's happening.”

Ok, so remember the whole introduction to this article where I was being totally sarcastic? Just so we're clear, Mick Mulvaney was not being sarcastic. He really didn't hesitate to tell a bunch of reporters, and by extension, the voting public, that feeding hungry students is a program that doesn't get results.

First of all, actually, it does. It takes literally no research experience whatsoever to Google for scholarly articles that draw an explicit connection between hunger and academic performance. But let's put aside the inaccuracy of his observation for a second and simply focus on the utter heartlessness of the sentiment. Doesn't making hungry children less hungry qualify as results? Or is that not a priority?

Granted, you can't legislate simply with your heart, but it should probably factor in once in awhile.

I think the Twitterverse said it best, regarding Budget Chief Mulvaney's comments, suggesting that he go a week without food and see just how well he does his job then.

With all of that said, Mulvaney's remarks suggest we are now consciously moving in the wrong direction, that student hunger is on the verge of growing, that schools are on the verge of massive federal funding cuts, that districts will continue to enjoy total freedom to enforce meal debt as they see fit, and that any number of these schools will appeal to lunch-shaming as at least one tactic through which to do so.

Evidence also suggests that they will only receive support from the federal government to the extent that it clearly won't interfere with the implementation of lunch-shaming policies. So, just so we're clear, today, in 2017, in the United States, which at the time of writing, has a $16.77 trillion Gross Domestic Product, nearly twice that of the next closest nation in the world, hungry children are being forced to watch as cafeteria workers throw hot lunches in the trash.

If the goal of school is to teach children that it's a harsh world out there and nobody cares whether you eat or starve, we're on the right track.

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