The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The “No Lunch for You!” Problem

on May 2, 2017

Today I will review and comment on a NY Times article about shaming students whose parents were not up to date in paying for school lunches. The practice is much more widespread and uglier than I realized. 

 P.S. My hand is somewhat better, but still painful when I use it too much. I intend to write shorter pieces until it heals completely.

When parents are late in paying for school lunches many schools punish the child publicly. One tactic widely practiced is for a server to throw the unpaid for lunch into a trashcan when the student comes to claim it, with other students looking on. That action, in itself, is humiliating, but things get worse when classmates make insulting remarks and the victim goes without any lunch that day. Even when lunchroom servers provide a child with a sandwich instead of the regular lunch, many other children are aware of what has happened and why. Often, the teasing goes on for days, and the victims are marked as outcasts–maybe permanently.

This ugly scene and its results are widespread. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture almost half of all districts providing school lunches use some form of student shaming in order to get parents to pay up. In Alabama, for example, one school stamps the arms of children whose parents are in debt with the words “I need lunch money.”

As I remember my time as a teacher and a principal, things were very different. In the first place lunches were prepared at schools, not provided by outside suppliers. Most students brought their lunches from home, a small number got free hot lunches because their family incomes were low enough for them to qualify for the Federal free meal program, and another small group had parents who were paying promptly for their lunches. If a child forgot his lunch box or a family was behind in paying, the servers had extra hot food for them or were able to put something comparable together at the last minute. There were no student punishments.

When a family got behind on payments or was careless about sending homemade lunches, the principal’s job was to contact them and work out a plan for paying up or providing lunches regularly for their child. Problems were rare, everyone was fed regularly, and no one was shamed.

But now that the good old days are gone, what can be done to make sure that all children who need a hot lunch get it and no one is shamed? Last year the Department of Agriculture decided that all states had to formalize a policy for  working out payment plans with parents and bans penalizing children. Several states have now done that and figured out ways to get financial support from local sources for schools that still find it hard to get payments from parents on time. In some communities, individuals and groups have set up charitable entities that work to raise money for student lunches and to insure that no one is denied a hot lunch or shamed.

In the long run however, all schools need a stable internal fund for emergencies such as this one. To make that happen school funding must be more adequate than it now is, and school spending must be more focused on students’ and teachers’ essential needs rather than frills. In my next post I will suggest some specific cuts in school spending that I believe should be made in order to enable schools to serve their basic mission.

One response to “The “No Lunch for You!” Problem

  1. Steve Buel says:

    Joanne, get thing to check on in Oregon. Thanks!


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