During a presidential debate in 2011, Newt Gingrich said “Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school.”
At the time I thought about how heartless this type of thinking was: poor students having to clean up after rich students. Newt wanted to teach poor kids a lesson about responsibility as if cleaning up after rich kids would do that. While Newt’s audience of rural whites cheered, I was certain most of their kids would have been part of the clean-up crew.
Newt didn’t get a chance to implement his plan, but some schools implemented their own plans to punish kids, “lunch shaming”.
Lunch shaming is a way to embarrass kids because their parents have a past due lunch bill:
- In Alabama, a child had ‘I Need Lunch Money’ stamped on their arm.
- Schools make cafeteria workers throw out hot food, if the worker finds out the parents owe money.
- Students are forced to wear a wristband indicating their parents have outstanding debts.
- In some schools, children are forced to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers.
- Schools offer a cheese sandwich instead of a regular lunch for kids with overdue lunch bills.
- A cafeteria worker was fired for giving hot lunches to children who had past due bills, paying for the lunches with her own money. This woman had worked for the school system for 15 years and they fired her.
Is there any wonder why children are so cruel to each other when adults are so cruel to children?
I was one of those poor students. It was tough to wait in the long line for lunch tickets with the other poor students as the rich students walked passed us. I remember the embarrassment. Some weeks I skipped the lunch line entirely just to avoid having to pick up my lunch ticket, opting instead to go and sit in the library.
That was a long time ago (a really long time ago). Now, children are given an electronic card, not made to stand in a “soup line”. But lunch shaming is worse. As this issue is drawing more attention, there are some people who are addressing it:
- New York-based writer Ashley C. Ford encouraged her Twitter followers to help out local school kids with overdue lunch accounts and her tweet had a big impact. In Minneapolis alone, more than 1,700 donors contributed over $139,000 to pay school lunch bills.
- Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh wants schools across the country to offer free lunch to all kids. Boston, Chicago, and Detroit provide lunches to every student regardless of income eligibility.
- New Mexico State Sen. Michael Padilla’s experience as a poor student helped him introduce the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which requires schools to work with parents to pay debts or helps them sign up for federal meal assistance.
- Philando Feeds The Children is raising money to cover student lunches for kids who aren’t eligible for free lunch but can’t afford meals.
With the new school year starting, we have to remember that schools are tough especially for poor kids. For many of these students, the free lunch might be the only meal they get. In a country as rich as ours, what is the purpose of shaming the kids about their parents’ bills, something they cannot control? Children cannot learn if they are hungry. Requiring schools to work with parents on their lunch debt is a start but we can and should do more.