Stephanie Woodard still remembers the weight of a roll of pennies in her pocket, hoping it would be enough to pay for lunch.
The professional learning specialist for Fort Bend International School District recalls sneaking into her father’s bedroom and digging through his green can of spare change.
And when there wasn’t enough money, she remembers being handed a saran-wrapped peanut butter and honey sandwich.
“I didn’t want to eat peanut butter and honey, and I didn’t want to be the one kid at the table who didn’t have a real lunch,” she said. “It made me feel terrible.”
Woodard didn’t qualify for free or reduced lunch because both of her parents had full-time jobs. But her father struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, and so there wasn’t always money for lunch.
Decades later, Woodard, who was a middle school teacher from 2005 to 2010 in the same district where she grew up, noticed that schools were still participating in “lunch shaming.” When students hit a negative lunch balance, typically the equivalent of a few lunches, cafeteria workers would print out the balance on a neon sheet of paper and place it on the lunch tray.
“The kids would hate to get it, and they would hate to take it home,” Woodard said. “When you don’t have money, every little thing is a way to draw attention to the fact that you don’t have money.”
In 2017, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott passed a bill with the goal of ending lunch shaming — this legislation allows for a grace period before students are served an alternative meal. But the practice of lunch shaming wasn’t just happening in Texas. It was, and continues to be, a daily occurrence in school districts across the United States.
Lunch shaming disproportionately affects marginalized families and goes beyond just hurting a student’s self-esteem. Missing meals hinders children’s development and success, and for many low-income students, lunch might be their only meal of the day.
To address this issue, legislators are proposing bills, nonprofits are launching campaigns, and powerful individuals are speaking up to help end lunch shaming.
THE SHAMEFUL ACT OF LUNCH SHAMING
Lunch shaming is a direct consequence of meal debt. If students have meal debt that’s not paid off, the burden falls on the school to cover it.
Here’s how meal debt happens: Schools receive federal reimbursement from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for students who qualify and enroll in free or reduced lunch and breakfast. If the total income of a family of four falls below $32,630, the student qualifies for free lunch and breakfast. If it’s below $46,435, the student qualifies for reduced breakfast and lunch.
For each child who qualifies for free meals, the school receives $3.41 for every one of their meals. For those who receive reduced meals, schools receive 32 cents. Students are automatically certified for free lunch and breakfast if their family receives assistance program benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
“That $3.41 has to pay for not only the food — which is a milk, a fruit, a vegetable, a grain and a protein with every lunch — but it also has to pay for labor, and benefits, and supplies, and electricity, and water and everything,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for School Nutrition Association (SNA), told NationSwell
But the one thing it can’t pay for is meal debt. The USDA forbids schools from using that money to cover what it deems “bad” debt. The agency requires schools to attempt to collect debt for unpaid meals, but if those attempts to recoup the debt do not work, it falls on the school to pay for it.
Where might this money come from? Perhaps from sales of a la carte items sold in cafeterias, charitable organizations or from the school’s general funds, said Pratt-Heavner.
But even if schools could use money from the federal government, “there’s just not enough funds available to cover unpaid meal debt,” Pratt-Heavner said.
No one knows how much lunch debt exists, but 75% of school districts reported having some amount of meal debt at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, according to SNA. For smaller school districts, it was less than $10, whereas other districts have reported upward of $865,000. The average amount of debt a district carried was $2,500.
Schools are motivated to get that money back. So they’ve turned to lunch shaming practices like stamping children’s hands with “I need lunch money” or making them clean tables when lunch is over. Schools have even sent debt collectors after families.
“In our view, school meals are just as important to learning as textbooks and pencils and paper.” – Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for School Nutrition Association
In 2010, when Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, it required the USDA to look at unpaid school meal debt. As a result, the USDA required school districts to create a written policy addressing debt. But that was where the guidelines ended, and as a result, policy varies greatly among districts.
Some policies were two sentences, while others were two pages.
“There were no minimum standards there,” Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food & Research Action Center (FRAC) said. “There were no protections for kids. Nothing.”
ENDING LUNCH SHAMING
According to school advocates, like FRAC, creating a consistent approach across all school districts is key to ending the practice of lunch shaming. So some government officials are leading the way through legislation.
In 2017, legislators in New Mexico passed an anti-lunch-shaming bill and became the first state to outright ban lunch shaming. Since then, other states, like West Virginia and California, have followed suit.
But some politicians want to take that ban nationwide.
In June, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen. Tina Smith introduced the No Shame at School Act in Congress, which would set a standard for what schools can and can’t do to a student who carries lunch debt. This follows New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland’s Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2019.
Omar’s bill is the more comprehensive of the two, and if it were to pass, schools would be required to communicate directly with the parents about any lunch debt.
That means schools would no longer be allowed to publicly identify students, whether that be stamping their hands or making them wear a wristband. It would also prohibit schools from stigmatizing students, by preventing them from attending school dances, for example. Finally, schools would not be permitted to force the student to perform chores or activities that the general student body isn’t required to do.
The bill would also require schools to attempt to certify children with debt and allow schools to receive retroactive reimbursement for the meals for up to 90 days. Finally, it would ban debt collectors from seeking overdue fees.
“Hunger and debt are a national problem,” Omar told ABC. “So, what this bill does is simple, it prohibits the punishment and shaming of children who are unable to pay school meal fees.”
If the bill doesn’t pass, the fight isn’t over. FRAC, a leading anti-hunger nonprofit in support of the bill, cites best practices for schools to approach lunch debt and avoid lunch shaming. Through strategic communication about free and reduced lunch, and by using new technology, like text alerts or automated refill programs, the goal is to get the children fed without financially burdening schools.
FitzSimons said schools should never let students be the messenger. Instead, schools need to communicate directly with parents and guardians. “We recommend not having any practices that overtly identify or stigmatize these kids whose families are carrying unpaid school meal debt,” she told NationSwell. “So that’s the first and most important thing.”
Other communities are working on the problem at the district and individual school levels. Dozens of GoFundMe pages have been launched to collect money, and a few nonprofits have been created as a direct response to lunch debt.
However, ending school lunch shaming doesn’t end school lunch debt. A few school districts have seen ballooning debt following bans on lunch shaming. For example, when Denver Public Schools announced it would no longer deny hot meals to students, debt rose from $13,000 to $356,000 in a year, partly because families were no longer incentivized to fill out forms for free and reduced lunch or pay for lunch. Thus policy changes are still needed to ensure schools can feed their students without racking up debt.
HEALTHY, HAPPY CHILDREN
Lunch-shaming bans are steps in the right direction. But it doesn’t address the root cause: Not every student can afford lunch.
“It’s not like it’s just one thing that is driving the debt, and it’s not just one kind of parent,” FitzSimons said.
There are many factors that can lead to a family acquiring lunch debt. For example, immigrant families might fear filling out the federal form, even though non-U.S. students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Or families may need some financial support but not technically qualify for free or reduced lunch. The application process can be lengthy and cumbersome, so families may fill out the form incorrectly, and unknowingly rack up meal debt. Some families are uncomfortable asking for assistance, while other families might not know they qualify for it.
Students going into debt can often be a flag that something more is happening in the household, FitzSimons said. It’s important schools recognize and quickly address why a student might be accruing debt. FRAC encourages schools to reach out and see if the families are eligible for free or reduced lunch when something like this happens.
Pratt-Heavner’s team at SNA urges Congress to adopt a universal free school meal policy. This policy would eliminate both meal debt and lunch shaming by providing every child with free breakfast and lunch. A universal meal policy has been supported by multiple presidential candidates and has gained momentum, buoyed by recent media coverage.
The only thing currently like a universal free lunch program is the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). This program offers free breakfast and lunch to all students in the nation’s highest poverty school districts. If 40% of students in a district automatically receive free meals, the schools can participate in the program. This makes sure every student eats, while also eliminating paperwork and the potential for school meal debt.
Under CEP, schools are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students who automatically qualify for free school meals, i.e. families who participate in programs like SNAP or Medicaid, for example.
Schools where that percentage is 62.5% or higher, the government reimburses the school for all meals consumed by any student at that school. If the percentage of students who would automatically be enrolled with free lunch is between 40% and 62.4%, the schools are fully reimbursed for that percentage and partially reimbursed for the meals of students who do not qualify. This will cost the district some money, FitzSimons said, but the district will also save money and time by eliminating paperwork.
“That not only eliminates the unpaid meal debt issue, it also eliminates any stigma with participating in free meals,” Pratt-Heavner said.
Schools hovering slightly above the 40% are more hesitant to participate because the composition of their student bodies could change. “If you’ve been participating in CEP and providing these free meals for families for a few years, and then suddenly you lose your eligibility, then you’re going to have some disappointed parents on your hands,” Pratt-Heavner said.
Schools are even more hesitant to enroll after Trump’s proposal to cut access to food stamps. This cut would change the number of students who automatically qualify for free lunch, which in turn would impact the school’s CEP eligibility.
However, for schools that hit the 62.5% mark, CEP has been a success. “It is definitely the best solution. It puts everybody on a level playing field, it makes sure that all kids in the school have the nutrition they need to learn and focus and concentrate,” FitzSimons said. School districts in cities like Detroit, Baltimore and New York have enrolled in the program, and report higher school attendance rates with happier and better-focused students.
Students need to be fed nutritious meals, Pratt-Heavner said. “In our view, school meals are just as important to learning as textbooks and pencils and paper.”