Have you ever watched an 11-year-old, short a dollar, pleading with the cafeteria worker to “please let me pay you back” in order to avoid the embarrassment of handing back over his hot meal?
I have. And it’s heartbreaking.
This school year, a Buncombe County elementary school made headlines when a student was threatened with being excluded from the school’s field day as punishment for unpaid lunch debt. While this particular incident gained national attention, “lunch shaming” – the practice of punishing or embarrassing students who do not have enough money for lunch – is prevalent in schools across the state and nation.
In far too many schools, it is common practice to shame children for failing to come up with the $2 or so that a hot meal at lunch costs. In many cases, their meals are thrown away and children are forced to eat an alternative (often a cold sandwich). In some of the more extreme cases, students are forced to work off their debts. Using shame by distinguishing them from their peers who are able to pay is not acceptable. And in many situations, children avoid the embarrassment altogether by skipping meals.
This year, the NC Senate’s budget proposed eliminating categorical eligibility in SNAP (formally known as food stamps), which threatened free and reduced lunches for up to 51,000 children. State legislators have not only failed to address the issue of childhood hunger, they have actively taken steps to make it worse.
Our leaders are also missing the larger picture, to the detriment of our communities and children. If we, as a state, value the health and well-being of our children, we should be focusing on how to ensure that no child, anywhere, is ever hungry.
Thankfully, there are policies that can help us to achieve this goal. One way is to make sure that food and nutrition services in schools are not based on receipts alone but are funded fully. House Bill 891 sought to make school breakfast and lunch available, free of cost, to any child who wanted it. Other states such as New Mexico have passed legislation to prevent lunch shaming and to prioritize feeding children.
At the federal level a policy that allows for universal provision of breakfast called community eligibility is available to North Carolina school districts. More than 700 schools in North Carolina participated and even more are eligible for the program.
It’s time that we take the fight against childhood hunger seriously.
In North Carolina, 1 in 6 households with children are food insecure, making school lunches a critical source of nutrition for many students. Denying children of a nutritious meal, for whatever reason, is not in line with our state’s values.