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EDITORIAL: Schools across nation isolate, shame students

Districts in US punish kids of low-income families unable to pay lunch debt

Jefferson Sharpnack, an Ohio primary school student, had to already overcome the difficulties of being the new kid at school, when earlier this month, cafeteria staff had confronted him in front of all his schoolmates and took away his cheesy breadsticks. It was his birthday. 

Sharpnack, like many other students across the nation, had run out of money in his lunch account and the school took action. Three-fourths of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year, according to the School Nutrition Association (SNA). 

Of the school districts with unpaid student meal debt, 40.2% said the number of students without adequate funds increased last school year. But for most of these school districts, the solution to mounting meal debt and strained budgets has been to isolate and victimize low-income families.

School districts in every state have been lunch-shaming and humiliating students who cannot afford lunch and have out-standing debts to their lunch programs. Before the start of the school year, a New Jersey school district considered new policies to address students’ lunch debt. The Cherry Hill Board of Education had planned to limit “meals to a tuna salad sandwich and a side dish for students who owe lunch money and then stop serving food after $20 in debt.” 

The idea for the meal to be off-menu and easily identifiable by smell was based on a desire to punish students with lunch debt. “We opted for tuna fish over peanut butter because we know that our little ones would probably very happily eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until the end of time,” said Assistant Superintendent Lynn Shugars.

It is often proposed that a harmless alternative meal will be served to low-income students with lunch debt. But, these off-menu meals do more harm than good and prevent real solutions from taking shape. These students are marked, differentiated and identified as those who cannot afford a “normal” meal. 

Students who fall victim to these insensitive non-solutions are vulnerable to social confinement to a targeted out-group. 

The Cherry Hill School District has a budget of $216 million and ranks as one of the wealthiest districts in the state. Out of that budget, roughly only $3 million is directed toward the meal program, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer

But, while they contemplate cutting off students who cannot afford lunch and isolating them, that very same lunch program reportedly raked in a profit of $200,000 despite the lunch debt. The district had $14,343 in unpaid meal debt in the last school year from more than 300 students who had a debt of more than $10, Shugars said.

A quick solution is to simply use the profit of a public education system’s lunch program to pay off the debt and then have more resources allocated to helping people navigate the cumbersome process of applying to free or reduced lunch programs. 

Research has proven that well-nourished children have improved academic performance, reduced behavioral problems and are more willing to participate in the classroom.

Though some states, including New Mexico, California, Oregon and Iowa, have passed laws prohibiting schools from singling out students and "shaming" them for having unpaid charges, New Jersey’s protection of students is limited. For those interested in making a change, contact your state senator in support of Senate Bill S-2979, or the “Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights Act."

The legislation requires “certain school meal information be provided to students' parents,” “establishes protocols for identifying eligible students for meal programs” and “prohibits stigmatizing student with bill in arrears.” This is a common-sense step in assuring that low-income students are not publicly shamed simply because of their financial situation. 

In the richest nation in the world, with its wage stagnation, inequality and millions of residents teetering on the edge of financial destitution, school lunch debt must be addressed with solutions that do not have adverse repercussions to the already disadvantaged. 

State and local public institutions must take action, but reforms at the federal level can be made as well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides $22 billion for child nutrition programs. Around $13 billion of that goes toward paying for free and reduced-cost school lunches for children living below or near the poverty line. But, the USDA also prohibits schools from using federal funds specifically to pay for meal debt. 

Federal funds are not only prohibited from being used to alleviate the suffering of the indebted, but also school districts have instead used these federal funds to contract for-profit collection agencies to recuperate that debt from parents. Such heinous appropriations should disgust all of those who encounter this political reality that allows for public entities to prioritize debt recuperation over the lives of the children they serve. 

Students must not go hungry and the hungry must not be shamed for their circumstances. This is the reality for kids in America. Shame is not an educative tool. It is a weapon of oppression. 

We are witnessing deeply harmful social conditioning that emphasizes difference and reinforces disadvantages. 

Do not look away — act. 

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