Lunch shaming is on its way out of schools

Aug 11, 2017

Have you heard of lunch shaming? Even experienced it, perhaps?

It's what happens when a kid can't pay for their school lunch, and the lunch service staff, or other students or teachers, make them feel bad about it. There have reportedly been instances where a student was obliged to help clean up the lunchroom to pay off their debt, or when a school stamped "I need lunch money" on a child's arm. Sometimes, it's just embarrassing for a student to have to go get the "courtesy meal" at the salad bar instead of the hot lunch offered to all the other students.

This summer, the USDA stepped in. The government agency issued a policy memo asking all school districts across the country to sit down and think about how they handle unpaid meal charges, in order to come up with a clear policy that they could communicate to parents and students by the beginning of this school year.

Marketplace Weekend's Adriene Hill spoke with Stephanie Bruce, the director of nutrition services at the Palm Springs Unified School District about how her district implemented a new policy for school meals after trying several different options. Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation.

Adriene Hill: So what is the policy now? What did you guys switch it to?

Stephanie Bruce: It's like a deferred payment policy. If students come through the line and they don't have any money, our operators send them through the line, let them get a lunch just like anybody else would, and then we print up a negative balance report. We provide it to the principal who then contacts the parents to let them know that their student didn't have money today, and if they could please send money tomorrow or go online and create an online pay account.

Hill: And everybody is going to eat!

Bruce: And honestly, everybody should eat. I mean a hungry child can't learn. And you know many of our students it's the, you know, most nutritious meal they get that day. I'll tell you our breakfast on Monday's is our most participated meal, and it's because a lot of students don't eat very much over the weekend.

Hill: What challenge is presented to the school by these sort of unpaid meal charges? Why can't you just hand the kids some food and say, eat!

Bruce: Well you know we're funded by federal taxpayer dollars. And the purpose of the meal program is to provide a free or reduced priced meal to students who are economically disadvantaged. There are families who don't qualify and those students have to pay for their meal. The government assistance that we do receive from the federal government is about 26 cents and that meal can cost upwards of $2.75. 

Hill: If a parent doesn't or can't pay the debt they owe you guys, who does the obligation fall to?

Bruce: It's going to fall to the site budgets. They will have to pay for the uncollected debt.

Hill: So the individual schools themselves?

Bruce: Right, which comes from our general fund money.