Common sense suggests we should be helping people who are struggling financially, not shaming them. And that goes double for children, who are never responsible for their parents' financial situations. However, in schools across the country, children are often stigmatized for their parents' inability to pay for their lunches.
In New Jersey, students with lunch debt aren't allowed to attend prom. In Pennsylvania, parents are threatened with being turned in to child protective services if they have outstanding lunch debt. In Rhode Island, students who have significant lunch debt are given jelly sandwiches instead of a hot lunch.
In other districts, children are given stamps on their hands that say, "I need lunch money." In some school cafeterias, children's lunches are thrown away in front of the entire cafeteria if they have lunch debt.
"When [lunch shaming] happens, it's short-sighted," Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school programs at the Food Research and Action Center, said in an interview with Popular Science. "Cafeterias should be positive experiences for all kids."
While in some states children are shamed, others are working to create a level playing field where children aren't called out for having lunch debt. Two years ago, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law that guarantees students will receive state-funded lunches regardless of whether their parents or guardians have unpaid meal fees.
In some districts, all students are given the same cards to pay for their lunches so those who have debt or are on free lunch programs aren't identifiable to other kids.
When children are stigmatized in the cafeteria it can affect their mental health, stress levels, and school work. "When we remove that stigma, it makes a big difference in kids' lives," Juliana Cohen, an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition studying school food programs at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Popular Science.
The state of Minnesota is working to be on the right side of the lunch debt issue. State leaders are putting a halt to lunch shaming by issuing new rules for administrators to address school lunch debt.
The state recently passed a new education finance bill that says its schools are no longer allowed to withhold any meals, affix any pins or stickers to students, or throw away a child's lunch.
"These are moments a child will never forget," state Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said in comments published by the Senate Republican Caucus. "Now that we have passed this critical language, it is my hope that no student will ever have to experience this traumatic shaming ever again."
The state's education Commissioner Heather Mueller agrees.
"We know that hunger can negatively impact a student's ability to learn, and quite simply, no child deserves to be hungry — especially in our schools," she said during a briefing on the bill. "Our lunchrooms are an extension of the classroom and set students up for academic success."
One of the biggest roadblocks a school can put in front of its students is making learning a traumatizing experience. States such as Minnesota that put their students' well-being first are a great example of how schools can align their educational priorities for student success.
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