We need to work together to stop school lunch shaming.
At a Durango middle school last week, a hand-written sign in the cafeteria that troubled me said “Kiddos – partial lunch will be given to you if you have charges [of] $8 or more. Be prepared for partial lunches from here until the end of [the] school year!” And, “Staff – There will be NO charging for [the] remainder of the year. Please pay what you owe.”
The partial lunches, consisting of a cheese stick and fruit, or a granola bar and fruit, were never served, perhaps because special education para-educator Robyn Baxendale started an online fundraiser, raising enough to pay the fines. Just this year, the school has received $2,208.45 in donations to pay off these lunch debts.
Under Colorado law, schools are not required to provide students with alternative meals if students owe the district money, so I suppose the fruit and accessory item seem generous. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency funding the free and reduced lunch program, coined the term “lunch shaming” – humiliating students who cannot afford lunch – and discourages it.
This hand-written sign was not about students who qualify for free and reduced meals, a school employee said, but was directed at students whose families are above the income thresholds. These kids were hungry and needed lunch, even though they temporarily didn’t have the money to pay. When did shaming anyone become acceptable, especially over food?
Should it matter that the students weren’t on the free and reduced list? What does matter is that these students could walk away from the lunch line with a cheese stick and apple, pretending their lunch was just as good as everyone else’s. In a world of middle-school embarrassment, that matters. It matters that, because parents didn’t pay or can’t afford to pay, the students are shamed.
What can be done?
Schools need the money they have expended for the lunches, but they may need a better way to communicate that need. I have seen what lunch programs get to spend on feeding our children, and it isn’t much. They stretch their dollars.
Teachers can’t afford the lunches either, apparently.
A constituent told me her family qualifies for free lunch, but they chose not to take it; middle schoolers can be cruel, and small-town gossip persists. “This is middle school; life is hard enough for them as it is, let alone to add this burden on the children, and not to their parents,” she said.
Last year, the Colorado Legislature took a step in the right direction by passing a bipartisan bill to expand school meal programs. Colorado currently pays a 40-cent co-pay on reduced price lunches for K-5 students through the School Lunch Protection Program; this law expanded that coverage through the eighth grade. But there’s more work to do.
I recently supported bipartisan bill HB 1171 in the House to expand this co-pay coverage through high school. Too many young students in our state often face food insecurities, affecting their learning abilities. Fourteen percent of high school youth report going without lunch.
I urge my colleagues in the Senate to quickly pass this legislation.
My bipartisan bill HB 1202 recently passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate. This bill strengthens healthy food access for all Coloradans by matching producers and consumers through a one-stop phone call, getting local, affordable food into all our schools.
We need to do better, however, because when students skip meals, it affects their academic performance. They skip meals when faced with humiliation, taunting and shame, just because their parents didn’t pay the bill. We must find a remedy by making lunches more affordable and finding ways to help parents and teachers pay their lunchroom bills, without making their debt public. We can do better.
Barbara McLachlan represents State House District 59. Reach her at email@example.com.