Shameful? Damn Right!

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Shaming Children so Parents Will Pay the School Lunch Bill"

Honestly, until reading this, I was not aware of Lunch Bullying, a method of payment coercion enforced by schools in a number of states. It is abusive and potentially psychologically scarring for any child subjected to this reprehensible practice.

The first paragraph in the Times article effectively sums up the tactic and will give you a better context for my outrage. Here it is…

“On the first day of seventh grade last fall, Caitlin Dolan lined up for lunch at her school in Canonsburg, Pa. But when the cashier discovered she had an unpaid food bill from last year, the tray of pizza, cucumber slices, apple and chocolate milk was thrown in the trash.

’I was so embarrassed,’ said Caitlin, who said other students had stared. ‘It’s really weird being denied food in front of everyone. They all talk about you.’

Caitlin’s mother, Merinda Durila, said that her daughter qualified for free lunch, but that a paperwork mix-up had created an outstanding balance. Ms. Durila said her child had come home in tears after being humiliated in front of her friends.”

Holding children publicly accountable for unpaid school lunch bills — by visibly throwing away their food and providing a less desirable alternative lunch — basically brands them as not being equal to other children who can afford to pay for their lunch. This is unthinkable and it’s hard to believe this is an initiative condoned by some of the same people society trusts to care for and serve as an example to our children.

After researching more about Lunch Shaming, I realized that this phenomenon is more widespread than I had feared. Here are a few more instances for you to digest:

· A teacher at school in Copperas Cove, Texas, witnessed a four-year-old preschooler being told by a cashier, “You have no money.” The cashier then reached down, picked up the child’s tray, removed the milk, dumped the food and sent the child away crying!

· Another incident in Houston, Texas, was witnessed by a fourth grader who watched a cafeteria worker refuse to serve another child a hot meal of chicken, potatoes, fruit and milk because her parents had not paid their bill. In this case the child was given two slices of bread and a piece of cheese, which appears to meet federal requirements, per a school administrator in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

· In Alabama, a child was stamped on the arm with “I need lunch money.” Really?! Do I even need to address the deplorability of this specific act!?

In an article on psychologytoday.com entitled The Harmful Effects of Shaming Children the authors discuss the potential negative effects of shaming children. Let’s take a look at what Sara Au and Peter L. Stavinoha Ph.D,. have to say:

“In behavioral terms, shaming is considered an aversive technique. Basically, the principle is that shame is a negative consequence of an unwanted behavior, so then the person avoids doing that behavior in the future because of the aversive outcome. But the painful feelings that shame unleashes in a young person’s mind are the real problem.

In many children, their feelings are magnified well beyond the proportions of us adults, who have perspective of more years. Shame, in particular, is felt keenly by any human, and so its magnification can be exponential in children and teens. The sheer weight of these feelings can be too heavy, too unrelenting. A child or a teen doesn’t understand that these feelings will get easier and even end at some point. The harmful effects of shaming can be long lasting.”

I imagine local and state legislators/educators who are proponents of Lunch Shamming will tell us that it’s used as a last resort to propel financially delinquent parents to meet their obligations. If this is the case, I’m calling BS! There are other ways to put pressure on parents without publicly humiliating an innocent child.

Over the past five years, these same public officials have been working to address the epidemic of student-to-student bullying (bullying is defined as a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker). But isn’t Lunch Shamming the very definition of bullying?

We may be a nation of “plenty,” but we are also a country where poverty and food insecurity (Lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.) run rampant. According to a 2015 study , Hunger In America, 42.2 million Americans lived in “food insecure” households; those statistics encompass 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. In 2015, more than 1 in 6 U.S. children (that’s 18%) lived in households that were food insecure at some point during the year.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that states are turning their backs on our most impoverished children. There is nothing to suggest this is the case. However, my concern is also for children who are on the cusp of poverty, whose families may be falling in and out of a state’s official poverty levels. As you can imagine, these children can easily fall through the “food support” cracks.

In that same vein, my intention is not to absolve financially delinquent parents from their responsibility. But to use children as leverage is unconscionable. In my opinion, Lunch Bullying should be outlawed at the state level and Washington should use all its weight to ensure it stops immediately.

Thankfully some states are beginning to turn their attention to this outrageous practice. Last month, New Mexico outlawed the practice of shaming children whose parents had not kept up with their school lunch payments. States including California and Texas are also formally addressing the issue.

This is a start but more is needed. Unless we get involved and let local, state, and federal legislative representatives know how we feel about this form of child abuse, this process will be perpetuated. Children should not have to bear the shame for their parents’ financial issues, especially since they have NO power to resolve the situation.

I believe with all my heart, regardless of political affiliation, income, race or creed, that one thing we share is a desire to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of our children. We are their caregivers. Let’s do all we can to make certain no child has to go through this avoidable humiliation in the future. Truth is, kids want to believe adults are their protectors. Let’s protect those who are most vulnerable! PLEASE “get involved” to help bring a quick end to this terrible practice!

Help our kids. Help our future.

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