It’s called “lunch shaming,” and it’s one of the cruelest, most outrageous forms of punishment ever visited upon children.
And what’s disgusting is it’s happening in schools across America. The vile practice has to be stopped and stopped now. It shouldn’t take a panel of researchers and months if not years of study to determine if lunch shaming is good or bad. Anybody with even a smidgen of kindness will know lunch shaming is wrong, it’s despicable and no child should have to endure even one example of it.
Here is how lunch shaming “works.” When a student doesn’t have enough money for a lunch, cafeteria servers take away the child’s tray of food, toss it in the garbage and hand him or her a paper bag containing a cheese sandwich and a small carton of milk. Some schools take away the tray of food and give the student nothing in return.
These poor kids feel singled out, humiliated, all the while attracting the stares of others as they go hungry. They feel like instant outcasts. One Colorado school’s cafeteria worker was fired for personally paying for a first-grader’s hot lunch. A Pennsylvania lunch server quit after being forced to take food away from a student who was $25 in debt on food payments.
Some students must do school chores, such as mopping the cafeteria floor or cleaning lunch tables in front of their peers, to “work off” their lunch debt. Some students in some districts have the words “I Need Lunch Money” stamped on their arms. It’s enough to make one’s skin crawl, enough to break one’s heart, enough to make one erupt in outrage.
Here in central Minnesota, cafeteria workers, we are told, are much more discreet in handling the problem, but – still – kids who cannot afford tray lunches must still feel a sense of shame, as if they are not worthy of “real” food.
Yes, there is a problem. About 75 percent of U.S. school districts have students with unpaid lunch debt, in one case a debt of nearly $5 million. So, obviously the problem is real. But the solution to that problem is not to snatch away a tray of food from a student. The solution is not to humiliate a student, to force outcast status upon him or her. That is the kind of inexcusable, despicable behavior that should never, ever be allowed to happen.
Why is it happening. There’s no doubt some parents are just plain lax about putting money into their children’s school-lunch accounts. Many more parents, however, are struggling to make ends meet, and many do not know they can apply for free or reduced-price lunches.
To New Mexico’s credit, that state recently banned all forms of lunch shaming. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico recently introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress called the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act. Every representative, every senator, every American should support that bill and insist it’s approved, the sooner the better.
The school-debt problem must be remedied, but humiliating poor and hungry students must not – absolutely not! – be part of that remedy.
Please tell legislators to give full support for the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.