Hey, Kid! Want Lunch? Shame On You.

The cash register woman says to this 4-year-old girl, verbatim, ’You have no money,’” said Holt, describing the incident last year. A milk carton was taken away, and the girl’s food was dumped in the trash. “She did not protest, other than to walk away in tears.”

This student was four. Did you catch that?

“[S]chool employees mark kids’ arms with stamps that say “I need lunch money” with a smiley face, hoping their parents will see it and pay up once the kid gets home. Other kids must clean their fellow students’ tables, a striking enforcement of class divides that are often already visible to children at young ages. Some schools instruct lunch servers to throw a student’s hot lunch away if he brings it to the counter and doesn’t have the balance to pay for it, then give him a cold-lunch option like a sandwich.”


In 2014, 40 lunches were taken away from children and the food was discarded, and last year a cafeteria worker quit after being ordered to refuse hot food to children who couldn’t pay for their meals.

What. The. Hell.

Seriously. What is wrong with us?! Apparently, it’s a thing in schools to shame students who are unable to afford to buy lunch there. Students are subjected to having notes delivered to them by cafeteria workers while they’re in class. Their arms are stamped with notes reminding parents to pay up. They are denied hot lunch and given cold sandwiches, which marks them as unable to afford the nicer meal. They are forced to do chores to work off their debt. Their lives are made worse all because their already struggling families can’t afford the roughly $2.50, the cost of an unsubsidized school lunch (and that’s $.40 for a reduced-price lunch).

Approximately one in eight US households was food insecure (or 5%) in 2016. In households with children, that number jumps to 7.8%. Food insecurity happens at higher rates for people living at or near the federal poverty line, people of color, and households headed by a single parent. Approximately 20 million US students receive free lunches; that’s about 40% of all America’s students. In case you need a reason to care about those hungry kids, here are a few:

  • From ages 1-3, hunger can negatively impact brain development and the achievement of developmental milestones. It can reduce the development of motor skills, as well as the desire to explore one’s environment.
  • In childhood, children can feel ashamed of their family’s inability to afford food. (CAN YOU SEE HOW LUNCH-SHAMING MIGHT BE A PROBLEM HERE?!) Hungry children often exhibit signs of conduct disorders such as fighting, stealing, not paying attention, anxiety, aggression, and being oppositional.
  • Children who face severe hunger can end up with chronic health conditions, psychiatric stress, and behavioral problems.

Back in 2010, the government launched a program called Community Eligibility Provision. It’s a major initiative of The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act and allows for the highest poverty school districts in the US to provide free lunch to all students. Full stop. I live in one of the participating school districts. Free breakfast and lunch are provided for all students—no paperwork necessary—with a la carte options students can pay for. Parents and school district staff are also invited to join in school meals at a low cost of just $2.25 for breakfast and $3.15 for lunch. I thought it was amazing when I found out about the free lunch program here. But when I hear about what can happen to students with delinquent lunch accounts, I am even more grateful that the school district and federal government work together to ensure that all students are fed. As a matter of fact, the program continues over the summer, too, so that no child has to go hungry.

Despite all that, this past school year my kindergartener came home to report that someone had stolen the food from the school guidance counselor’s office. Being five, she immediately wanted the police to come investigate and take the culprit to jail. Instead, we had a conversation about how sad it was that a child (who was somewhere between Pre-K and fourth grade) was so hungry they felt their best option was to steal food from school. Then we went to the store together to purchase healthy snacks to restock the counselor’s office.

Fortunately, at least some people are starting to realize the negative impact that lunch-shaming (and hunger) can have on kids.

  • Starting in May 2016, a teacher began raising money to eliminate student lunch debt. As of July 2017, he’s raised almost $24,000.
  • A staff member in one district began reaching out to families to encourage them to apply for free or reduced-price lunches. Lunch debt has fallen by about two-thirds.
  • In May 2017, CNN found 30 GoFundMe accounts for the purpose of raising money to pay off lunch debt in school districts around the country.
  • A dad in Seattle has raised enough money to pay off school lunch debt in Seattle, Tacoma, and Renton in Washington state.

How can you help?

  • Contact your local school. Find out what the debt is. Pay it if you can, pay towards if you can, fundraise to pay off the debt if you can. Widen your circle from there to include the school district and from there to neighboring school districts and beyond.
  • Check out some of those GoFundMe accounts and consider donating.
  • Become involved with your local parent-teacher organization and your local school board to learn what they’re doing to address lunch-shaming and school lunch debt.
  • Contact your local, state, and federal representatives. Encourage them to support measures to end lunch-shaming. (New Mexico recently passed the country’s first law to do so.) And discourage them from supporting cuts to the USDA—specifically cuts that would impact the Community Eligibility Provision.
  • Talk to your kids. What are they seeing at lunch time? How do they feel about it? Do they know anyone who has a hard time affording food at school or at home? Work together to think of ways they—and your family—can help.

Food insecurity and hunger seem like insurmountable problems. But local school lunch debt and lunch-shaming in your neighborhood schools are problems you can help tackle. Because—it should go without saying, although apparently it doesn’t—NO KID SHOULD GO HUNGRY. NO CHILD SHOULD BE SHAMED (by adults at their school, no less) BECAUSE OF THEIR FAMILIES FINANCES. I feel like Smokey Bear here, but YOU can prevent school debt lunch shaming.

Let’s do it!