What's the answer to school 'lunch shaming'?

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Speed read

What's happening: A school district in eastern Pennsylvania sent letters to parents warning that their children could end up in foster care if their debts for meals at school were not paid. The letter from the Wyoming Valley West School District said parents "can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child's right to food," and the court hearing "may result in your child being removed from your home."

Local officials were quick to contradict the threats in the letter. "Luzerne County foster care will never take a kid for not paying school debt," County Manager David Pedri told CNN. The district is reportedly owed $22,000 in lunch debt, and it's not the only one.

As many as 75 percent of districts nationwide reported having unpaid meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year. The cumulative lunch debt in some states has reportedly reached into the millions.

Recently, a number of schools have been in the news for their methods of recouping that debt. Some have resorted to giving kids with lunch debt cold food, marking them with "I need lunch money" stamps, hiring collection agencies and even firing cafeteria workers who let students eat without paying.

Why there's debate: Critics of these methods — commonly called "lunch shaming" — say they unfairly punish children for their parents' inability to pay. Child psychologists say being singled out in front of classmates can lead to anxiety, depression and other lasting psychological effects.

A handful of school districts have had their debts paid off through charity, GoFundMe campaigns and even donations from fellow students, but this does nothing to address the underlying poverty that causes parents to be unable to pay for their children’s meals.

Proponents of lunch shaming say it’s unfortunate but necessary, as school districts struggle to function under the pressure of shrinking budgets.

What's next: Several states and cities have passed laws that ban lunch-shaming practices and require schools to give every student a hot meal. A number of nonprofits and school districts are running campaigns to help parents take advantage of federal programs that provide free and reduced-price lunch. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has proposed a bill that would ban lunch-shaming practices nationwide.

New York City, the nation's largest school district, began providing free lunch to all of its 1.1 million students in 2017. Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has proposed free lunch to all students in America.


Lunch shaming can have lasting social and emotional impacts on kids

“Children are so aware of differences between kids — whether it’s socioeconomic, popularity, or whatever — that when you engage in any practice expressly meant to set them apart, kids feel that keenly. The stigma is real; it’s a really unfortunate tactic." — Bettina Elias Siegel, food policy writer, to Eater

It's unfair to ask children to suffer the consequences of adults' mistakes

"It puts them, essentially, in a very adult position when they don't have the resources at that point to fend for themselves." — Rebecca Rialon Berry, child psychologist, to ABC News

Unpaid meal debts put an enormous strain on school budgets

"Behind the outrage lurks a larger issue. Survey data from the advocacy group School Nutrition Association shows that overdrawn lunch accounts create real financial challenges for school districts, forced to weigh mounting costs against unsatisfied students and families." — Melinda Anderson, The Atlantic

There's no way to solve the problem of lunch debt without first knowing how bad it is

"That brings us around to the bigger conundrum — and a potential opportunity. No one really knows just how much lunch debt there is nationwide. In both research and interviews, I was unable to find an estimate of the scope of cumulative student lunch debt across the country. Tens of millions of dollars? Hundreds of millions?" — Jessica Fu, New Food Economy

All schools in America should provide free lunch

"Luckily, there is a fix to the trend of lunch-debt shaming, stressed parents and hungry, food-insecure kids: Make public school lunch free for every kid." — Patrick Coleman, Fatherly

School lunch programs were intended to lift up the poor, not punish them

"When the school lunch program was created, President Truman said that we'll have stronger Americans, we'll have better national defense if everybody is healthy, happy and can think through it. It was for everybody. Now suddenly, it's like, 'Oh, my God, these poor people are asking for food again.'" — Marc Lamont Hill, Black Coffee

Barriers prevent parents from taking advantage of federal programs they qualify for

"In some instances, students could be eligible for the USDA’s free and reduced-price lunch program, but narrow income requirements, annual application deadlines, and language barriers can make it difficult for parents to apply each year." — Gray Chapman, Atlanta

Viral stories of kids paying off classmates' debt don't solve the larger problem

The scale of the generosity and thoughtfulness of these children is undoubtedly awe inspiring. But it also brings a spotlight to the issue at hand: Is this really all we can do about student lunch debt?" — Tebany Yune, Mic

Lunch debt unfairly targets poor and immigrant communities

"As an issue that disproportionately involves marginalized families — those in poverty, living paycheck to paycheck, or even undocumented immigrants afraid to participate in the federal free lunch program — lunch debt magnifies the widespread economic and structural inequities that have historically existed in the U.S." — Nadra Nittle, Civil Eats

Federal law needs to be changed to take the burden off individual schools

"Unfortunately, there isn’t an answer in the immediate future to this problem, unless statewide or federal legislation is passed guaranteeing universal school lunch." — Josh Ocampo, Lifehacker

Changing laws about how schools use federal funding could alleviate the debt problem

"The USDA prohibits schools from using federal funds specifically to pay for meal debt — those federal funds, however, are used to contract for-profit collection agencies to recuperate that debt from parents." — Luke Darby, GQ

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