Some Schools Shame Students When Their Parents Can’t Pay For Lunch

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Shaming a debtor may be an effective — and potentially illegal or unethical — way of getting them to pay up, but should children who have no control over their family finances be publicly shamed if it gets their parents to pay their outstanding school lunch bills? 

The New York Times recently took a look at the practice of “lunch shaming,” where schools exert varying degrees of public humiliation on students in order to make sure their families catch up on their cafeteria debt.

A 2016 report from the Dept. of Agriculture found that nearly 75% of the 1,000 surveyed schools have some level of unpaid meal debt on their books.

Those debts can add up, particularly at schools where there are maybe hundreds of children living in poverty. Large districts may face millions of dollars in unreimbursed foodservice expenses, so it’s definitely a problem in need of a solution — but does that solution involve embarrassing children?

Shaming Students

In many cases, the NY Times found schools rely on lunch shaming in order to get parents to pay bills. For instance, some schools will take away a student’s hot lunch, throw it away, and then provide a cold sandwich for the meal.

One Kansas student tells the NY Times that she was told to return her tray of food when her account went into the negative. As a replacement, she was given a cold sandwich.

“If you didn’t eat the lunch, they were just going to throw it away,” she said. “It seems unfair to me to expect a bunch of kids to be responsible for putting money in their lunch accounts when they don’t even handle their own funds.”

Others districts mark children with an “I Need Lunch Money” stamp in order to notify parents to pay bills.

Fixing The Debt

The Department of Agriculture has given states until July 1 to create policies on how to treat children who can’t pay for lunches, the NY Times reports.

The Department, which oversees school lunches, doesn’t want to tell schools how to deal with debts, but they want them to address the decades-long issue, a rep tells the NY Times.

While schools and states work on their own policies, the Department has offered some options, including “preferred alternatives” for students who can’t pay for their lunches, including creating payment plans for parents, and allowing all children to eat the hot meals.

Some states are going beyond simple school lunch policies. For instance, New Mexico passed a bill recently that requires schools to create payment plans for parents and directs them to provide students a hot meal instead of a cold sandwich when they can’t pay for lunch. School districts in Minnesota, San Francisco, and Houston have followed suit with similar policies.

“This is fundamentally a right-versus-wrong decision,” Brian Busby, the chief operating officer for Houston schools, tells the NY Times. “If a kid needs a meal, he’s going to eat.”

Community Help

While the new policies address students becoming embarrassed when their meals are taken away, it doesn’t solve the problem of unpaid bills.

Instead, the NY Times reports that the Dept. of Agriculture has suggested schools rely more on their communities.

Some schools have already been on the receiving end of “random acts of kindness” in which a community member has paid for overdue lunch bills or made a contribution toward paying those debts down.

After witnessing a student being denied a hot meal, a Houston theater technician began the Feed the Future Forward program that hosts auctions and fundraisers to provide funds to wipe away lunch debt, as long as schools promise not to give alternative meals to children with outstanding bills.

Additionally, current and former educators, as well as community members, have turned to crowd-funding to pay for students’ lunch debts. For instance, a rep for GoFundMe tells the NY Times that there are currently about 30 active campaigns to wipe away lunch debts for students.