Of the many outrageous things we are assaulted with every day in the news, one that has really disturbed me is so-called “lunch shaming,” aimed at kids who can’t pay their school lunch bills. Schools are getting aggressive about collecting, including serving different meals to these kids, or refusing to serve them, and barring them from school activities. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the schools – I do – but shaming a child, especially in public, and especially in the high-stakes lunchroom social circle, is absolutely unforgivable. Who doesn’t remember the pain of a social slight in their teen years? It’s bullying, pure and simple, which schools are supposed to be preventing.
Many of us are lucky that we don’t have to worry about whether we – or our children – can afford to have lunch every day. Unfortunately, many families don’t have that peace of mind, and their children are suffering for it.
Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is one of the latest school districts to make headlines for how it is handling lunch debt. After a national outcry erupted about how it was limiting students in arrears to tuna sandwiches, the district expanded its menu. However, students who owe more than $75 are banned from enjoying two high school rituals: buying yearbooks and prom tickets. The district also blocks them from participating in non-academic field trips and extra-curriculars.
Cherry Hill isn’t alone. Nearly half of school districts use some form of shaming to get parents caught up on their lunch bills, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
According to news reports, the Wyoming Valley West School District in northeastern Pennsylvania sent letters home to parents warning them that if they failed to pay overdue lunch bills, they risked losing their children to foster care.
“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without breakfast and/or lunch,” the letter said, according to CBS News. “This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food.”
This is obviously an extreme example, but it’s completely unconscionable.
Even worse, when Todd Carmichael, the CEO of La Columbe Coffee in Philadelphia, offered to repay the district’s nearly $22,500 debt to wipe the slate clean, the district initially refused. The school board’s president said the money was owed by parents who could afford to pay – as if he were judge and jury. Under public pressure, the district finally accepted his generosity.
Many hard working people with average incomes are finding it difficult to keep up with rising costs like housing, healthcare and education. When they’re not paying their lunch debt, it’s safe to say it’s usually not because they spent the money on a vacation in Aruba. They are paying their electric bill, keeping the water turned on, getting caught up on a dentist’s bill or putting gas in their car so they can go to work.
Fortunately, some schools are taking a more compassionate approach. Here in New York City, the public schools have provided free lunch to all students for the past two years. This policy took shape in response to reports of children who were going hungry instead of telling the school they could not afford to pay.
Other states, such as California and New Mexico, have adopted laws that make lunch shaming illegal. New Jersey, unfortunately, still has a law on the books that must have been written in the Dark Ages. It says lunch “shall not be served” to students who are more than three weeks late in paying their lunch bills, if a parent or guardian has gotten proper notice.
I don’t know what the answer is for schools, which bear a tremendous burden in keeping students safe, healthy, and prepared to learn (which requires full stomachs). But I’m sure that greater minds than mine are working on policy solutions that don’t require adding insult to injury for kids without lunch money in their pockets.
In the meantime, we all have many opportunities to support those in need, particularly as the holidays approach. The annual Marcum Day of Service – a paid philanthropy day for all Marcum staff – is only three weeks away, and our theme is feeding America.
On the day before Thanksgiving, all Marcum offices across the country will be closed so our associates and partners can spend the day volunteering with local organizations working to solve hunger in our communities.
The Marcum Day of Service is an initiative of the Marcum Foundation, and it’s one of my favorite days of the year. Speaking for the entire Marcum team, I can tell you that we are gratified and honored to be able to help those in need in our communities in this way. There is plenty we can all do to make sure no American has to live with food insecurity and the shame that surrounds it.
Monday, November 11, marks the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day, a federal holiday honoring persons who served in the United States Armed Services, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines. For those of us who haven’t served, a national holiday is far from an adequate way to thank those who did on our behalf, but it’s a small token of our national appreciation. We should be thanking them and honoring them more regularly. So, for those of you who have served, we at Marcum salute you and thank you for your service to our country.