Parents Talk Back

There’s a group of people in our schools I never knew existed: adults who believe it’s OK to humiliate a hungry child who doesn’t have money for lunch.

These people came to public attention when New Mexico had to pass a law specifically banning “lunch shaming.”

“Lunch shaming” involves the adults in a school deciding that embarrassing a hungry child whose parents are behind on the bill is a good way of getting parents to pay up.

A report in the New York Times describes the ways some schools do this: In Alabama, a child short on funds was stamped on the arm with “I Need Lunch Money.” In other schools, children are forced to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers to pay the debt, or wear a wristband. Some schools require cafeteria workers to take a child’s hot food and throw it away if he can’t pay for it.

They throw a perfectly fine hot lunch in the trash and hand the child a sandwich with a single slice of cheese in it.

What a disgrace. What an utter failure on the part of any adult who would support such a policy. It’s an indictment of our collective sense of empathy if adults have to pass laws telling school workers not to shame a child in a lunch line.

How can anyone with a shred of human decency justify humiliating children -- who cannot get jobs and earn their own money -- for their parents’ inability to pay?

I’ve had two children in public schools for eight years, and I was an education reporter for many years prior to that. I’ve seen my share of inexplicable or misguided school policies, but I’ve never seen something so cruel devised by adults charged with educating or caring for children.

School principals like to talk about their school communities as “families,” but could they behave with such callousness toward a hungry child in their own family?

There are schools in our wealthy nation with an overabundance of food that have a “no money, no meal” policy. Cafeteria workers have quit over it.

Stacy Koltiska, a Pittsburgh-area cafeteria worker, had to take a hot lunch away from an elementary school child who had a negative balance on his account in the Canon-McMillan school district last fall. She resigned over the policy.

“As a Christian, I have an issue with this,” said Koltiska in news reports. “It’s sinful and shameful is what it is.”

I’m with Koltiska. Any Muslim, Jew, Christian or decent human being should have an issue with this.

Research shows that it’s harder for hungry kids to learn. That’s common sense, and some helpful policies do exist. Federal guidelines state that a family of four with an income of $31,590 or less qualifies for free school lunches, while families making up to $44,955 qualify for reduced-price lunches.

Some districts with high concentrations of poverty have moved to providing universal free lunch. But what about children in suburban districts where there are lower percentages of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch? What about cases in which parents don’t know how to apply, or are too embarrassed to admit they are struggling financially? Or families who fall just above the cutoff?

There are adults who believe these children should be denied a lunch and humiliated in front of their peers.

I didn’t know lunch shaming existed. I didn’t know we needed a law to tell adults these practices are deplorable. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know how my own school district handled situations where students’ lunch balances went unpaid.

I called my district’s communications office to find out, and learned that parents receive an email and a letter when their child’s lunch balance drops below $5. Our schools allow three charges against an account that hasn’t been paid. After that, cafeteria workers are told to call the principal, who can access an emergency fund to pay for the lunch and contact the parents to see if they need help filling out eligibility paperwork for reduced pricing. If the principal determines there isn’t a financial hardship, and the bill is still unpaid, the child will get a sack lunch -- cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit, and milk or juice -- instead of the hot lunch. No child is denied food completely.

This is likely a typical procedure in many districts. It’s not overt shaming, but it’s still the child with the sack lunch who bears the consequences for a parent’s behavior.

I thought about what home circumstances might lead to a parent ignoring repeated emails, letters and calls about an unpaid lunch balance. I don’t know what that child had for breakfast, nor do I know what he or she will eat for dinner. Yet, as a school community, as a so-called “family,” can we really not ensure that any child who wants a hot lunch in our school gets one?

Well, then, shame on us.

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