Far too often in school cafeterias across the country, a student is served a lunch, only for it to be thrown away because he or she does not have money in the lunch account or in hand to pay for the meal.
Some school districts also reportedly stamp children’s hands or make them wear stickers that say “I need lunch money” — ostensibly to remind a parent or guardian to put funds in a student’s lunch account.
But each of these strategies invariably causes embarrassment in front of the student’s peers, which is why the policies are lumped under the phrase “lunch shaming.” And school districts often discover that many students’ who owe school lunch money are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, but have not been certified to receive them.
School meal debt is a challenge for most school districts, and policies for how school districts deal with this issue vary significantly. Some allow students to “charge” a meal if they cannot pay, but many limit this to a certain number of meals or a strict dollar amount. Some districts may offer a child a standard meal from the menu regardless of the ability to pay, while other districts may serve an alternate meal such as a cheese sandwich when meal debt accrues. Some offer nothing at all, a practice more common among secondary schools.
One state has already taken a strong stance against “lunch shaming” practices. New Mexico recently passed a law that requires communication about school meal debt to be directed only to parents and guardians and not children. New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights ensures that all children will be fed, and provides guidelines for collecting debt.
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