Over the past three years, school cafeterias have become an unlikely site of controversy.
The problem of school lunch debt, or the debt students acquire when they cannot pay for their school lunches, drew national attention back in 2015 when a Colorado cafeteria worker was fired for giving food away to hungry students who didn't qualify for a free or reduced lunch. The same thing has happened to cafeteria workers elsewhere.
When a student repeatedly forgets their lunch money or cannot afford their meal, cafeteria workers may be instructed to take away the child's hot meal and replace it with a cold sandwich. This is one example of what's called "school lunch shaming." Some schools go as far as to ask children to wear a wristband or hand stamp so cafeteria workers can better identify them. This singles out the student and makes them vulnerable to bullying, which needless to say, can affect their self-esteem and studies.
After hearing about the problem on CNN last year, Jeffrey Lew, a concerned father from Washington, took action by starting a campaign on GoFundMe, the success of which surprised even him: within five days he had raised $50,000 to pay off lunch debt in the Seattle Public Schools district and two other districts in the state.
Now a self-proclaimed school lunch shaming and debt activist, Lew wanted to start another campaign that would eliminate all lunch debt for every Washington school district. After contacting 316 school districts, Lew estimated a total debt of $650,000, which became his new goal. The new fundraiser officially opened August 15, 2017, and has so far raised $47,000.
Fortunately, school lunch shaming has garnered enough public criticism to attract the attention of political leaders. In 2017, New Mexico state senator Michael Padilla wrote legislation that banned school lunch shaming practices, inspiring a wave of similar bills in state and federal legislatures.
But addressing the shaming doesn't necessarily get to the heart of the issue, which tends to be a general lack of school funding. When a child cannot pay, schools have to find other ways of covering the cost. This can mean going into debt to the school district or taking money away from other school programs.
If you want to help schools feed their students without accruing debt or breaking their budgets, consider taking one or more of the following steps.
Lots of people don't know school lunch debt is a thing. But when they hear about how it affects children, particularly that children go hungry or get bullied as a result, people want to help.
Though raising awareness can seem relatively ineffective, the payoff can be huge. Consider the fact that a single tweet about school lunch debt by writer Ashley C. Ford sparked countless others to start local donation campaigns. One effort helped raise more than $100,000 for lunch debt in the Minneapolis Public Schools district. Drawing on her own experience as a child who was sometimes unable to pay for school meals, Ford understood how it can affect a child's concentration.
Making school lunch debt common knowledge is a central part of Lew's strategy.
"I’m trying to raise as much awareness as possible for school lunch debt and lunch shaming," he said. "I get the 'I did not know that this was even an issue' or 'I didn’t know this was happening' all of the time."
In the last two years, the crowdfunding site GoFundMe has helped raise more than $500,000 to pay off schools' lunch debt. You can join the wave by either donating to an existing campaign or starting your own. If you choose the latter, Lew suggests first calling your school district and asking if they have families with school lunch debt, how much they owe, and if there are any existing campaigns to address it.
Though viral stories about lunch shaming often cast school administrators in an unflattering or even villainous light, the crux of the problem is that schools are almost always between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their budgets.
Access to healthy, nutritious lunches is critical to student success. Shaming kids for not being able to afford their lunch simply adds to issues that arise from going hungry and is cruel. Schools shouldnt be bullying students. We must end #LunchShaming
— Carolyn B. Maloney (@RepMaloney) July 12, 2018
U.S. public schools remain underfunded and understaffed. Even the schools that want to provide free lunch can't afford to do so. When parents don't or can't pay for their child's school lunch, and the student hasn't been enrolled in a free or reduced lunch program, a school can rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the school district. They'll need to find ways to cover that cost by hounding parents, asking for donations, or pulling from their own meager budgets. Often, the school district pays for it from its general fund.
The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 was introduced last August but hasn't been passed yet. Though many members of Congress are on vacation this month, they will be back in September. Schedule to call them then and encourage them to pass this bill (tell the person answering the phone you're calling about bill number HR2401). The law would ban schools from punishing children who cannot pay for their lunch — no hand stamps, wrist bands, or forced chores.
"The shaming is a symptom of lunch debt."
But while you're doing that, push your representative to dig a little deeper and address the bigger problem. Currently, the National School Lunch Program gets $13.6 billion from the federal government. That may sound like a lot, but the program faces new challenges and has previously asked for increased funding. The Trump administration's suggested budget cuts could actually take a huge toll on programs that provide nutrition at school.
In Lew's opinion, the Anti-Lunch Shaming bill is good progress but not the ultimate solution.
"The shaming is a symptom of lunch debt," he said, noting that the bigger problem is a lack of school funding.
Taking time to raise awareness and money are good, important steps on the way to providing schools with the essential funding they need to serve their students.