School Lunch Shaming: America’s hidden debt crisis?

An alarming number of students across the country still cannot afford a $2.35 lunch. Despite cash subsidies by the Federal government feeding two out of three students, meals go unpaid.

School Nutrition Association, a national organization committed to improving the quality of school meal, recently launched a new national survey of school meal operators in the United States. The survey finds that over 75 percent of school districts across the country face unpaid student meal debt. Essentially, this involves food bills the school has to pay since they are not covered by reduced and free lunch programs. Cash-strapped schools resort to different measures, to avoid the costs from adding up. In several cases, the measures have been humiliating for the students who cannot afford to purchase lunch. At some schools, students are being sent home with a sticker or a stamp on their hand. At others, schools take the student’s food entirely.

Children usually bear the brunt of an unpaid meal. In 2014, a federal report found that over 39 percent of districts hand out cheap meals with no nutritional requirements and more than 6 percent refuses to serve food to students who are unable to afford it. The Agriculture Department’s National School Lunch Program shields nation’s poorest children from lunch shaming. If a family of four earns less than $32,000 a year, kids can eat for free. Hence, households with slightly higher incomes are more likely to struggle.

Matt Antignolo, a former school cafeteria worker, reports: “It is the worst part of the job.” A Colorado cafeteria worker was fired in 2015 after she paid for a first grader’s meal. In 2016, a lunch lady in Pennsylvania quit in protest, after she was forced to take food away from a student who was $25 in debt. Although policies across districts vary, several schools serve an “alternate meal,” such as cheese sandwich, after a student’s debt exceeds $15.

Earlier this year, New Mexico banned any form of lunch shaming. The anti-meal-shaming law requires the school to contact parents directly and provide meals to all children standing in a line, regardless of whether they can pay. The dramatic move highlighted the hidden crisis in schools and ignited a national conversation about what needs to be done when students are unable to pay. Furthermore, the California Senate unanimously approved a bill that prevents schools from denying lunch to a student. Texas has established a short-term “grace period,” where kids received the meal, while their debts are addressed to their parents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s requirement for districts to adopt policies that address the school lunch debt and inform parents about outstanding money owed has partially fueled these changes.

The agency is not specifically barring the use of certain tactics, including serving students cheap sandwiches instead of hot meals or sending students home with hand stamps. However, it is encouraging schools authorities to work closely with parents to address this issue and ensure that children do not go home hungry. In Colorado, one in five children do not know where their next meal would come from. Ellie Agar, the spokeswoman for Hunger Free Colorado, believes that “the importance of those meals for students in Colorado should not be undervalued.”

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