Lawmakers, Parents Act to Counter 'Lunch Shaming'

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May 14, 2017

People across the U.S. are acting to confront "lunch shaming," the practice of essentially assigning responsibility to schoolchildren for the school lunch debt that their family has incurred. Taking action are both lawmakers and private citizens.

A not uncommon sight at American schools is a child's being handed a bag containing a cold lunch, while other students in line get a hot meal, with the only difference being that the student who got the bag has an outstanding school lunch debt. At some schools, such students are made to wear wristbands or get a hand stamped, to identify them as debtors.

The National School Lunch Program, created in 1946, provides meals to students at more than 101,000 schools at little or no cost. Estimates of the number of American children currently enrolled in the program exceed 31 million. Some students' families cannot afford to pay the cost, and so some schools have resorted to not serving those students the same food that is served to other students who do not have school lunch debt.

Similar bills in both the Senate and the House of Representatives aim to prohibit the practice. The bills, were they to become law, would become the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act. New Mexico recently passed a similar law at the state level.

In the private realm, parents and schools are taking matters into their own hands:

  • A parent in Texas helped raise more than $13,000 to pay off student lunch debt in his child's district. 
  • Another parent in another district raised more than $18,000 for the same purpose.
  • An Elks lodge in Florida spearheaded an effort that raised nearly $3,000 for the local school district's lunch debt.
  • A Tennessee parent helped raise more than $3,000 to help pay off debts in her child's district.
  • A parent in Seattle raised more than $21,000 and paid off all student debt (breakfast and lunch) for one entire district.
  • An anonymous donor paid off all meal debt for 171 students in one Mississippi district.

A 2016 study by the School Nutrition Association found that about 75 percent of school districts across the country ended the most recent school year reporting unpaid student lunch debt. The same figure two years earlier was 70 percent, the SNA said.

The U.S. Government reported in 2015 that 20 million of the country's 50 million children received free school lunch and that 10 million children received free school breakfast; studies have a large amount of overlap in the two populations.

Governments of other nations offer students free or reduced price meals. Among those offering free lunches are the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, India, Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sweden, and the U.K. Among those offering reduced price meals are France, Ireland, Italy, and Japan.

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