A school district in Rhode Island is under fire for introducing a “lunch shaming” cafeteria policy that punishes students whose families are behind on paying for their school lunch.
Warwick officials announced on Sunday that the district will serve sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches instead of hot food to students with unpaid lunch debt. The district claims the policy is necessary because it owes more than tens of thousands of dollars in lunch money, and has a $4 million budget deficit, according to the Providence Journal. Parents, community members, and educators aren’t pleased with the decision.
“It is disheartening to know that schools are unable to find the resources to feed children during the school day and that punishing the students is their preferred alternative,” Kathleen Gorman, director of psychology at the University of Rhode Island, who has studied how poverty affects child development for 30 years, told Global Citizen via email.
Lunchroom policies like Warwick’s can have a negative impact on kids social and emotional well-being, according to Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center.
“How school districts choose to deal with unpaid school meals debt has a big impact on students and the quality of the culture inside and outside of the school cafeteria,” she said. “It also affects whether or not students have the healthy nutrition they need to focus and concentrate throughout the school day.”
The Warwick community worries children who can’t receive hot lunches might be bullied by their peers, according to the Washington Post.
Alternatively we could just not charge for school lunch. https://t.co/kF8cTTXJvU— s. e. smith (@sesmith) May 8, 2019
In Warwick, close to 40% of students in pre-K to 12th grade qualified for free or reduced-price lunches and the district’s lunch program is meant to make sure children can eat despite their economic circumstances. However, in many cases, students end up stacking up debt because their parents make too much to qualify for subsidized meals, FitzSimons explained.
“It is the students who are not certified for free school meals that are impacted,” FitzSimons said. “This can be students who are certified for reduced-price meals (household income between 130 and 185% of poverty) as well as students who are just above that cutoff whose families may still be struggling and students who are eligible for free meals, but have not been certified.”
Some families opt out of applying for school meal assistance altogether, which contributes to debt, according to the Washington Post.
The exact amount of lunch money debt is unclear –– sources reported a budget deficit amount between $40,000 and around $77,000. Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago who focuses on poverty policy and public health, told Global Citizen that schools are losing more than a dollar amount when they sacrifice a child’s well-being for money.
“If there’s a parent who really is causing a problem and should be paying but isn’t paying, there are probably other issues in that family that are affecting that child that the people in the school care about,” Pollack said.
“Are we making those issues better or worse by giving them a cold jelly sandwich and embarrassing them? My guess is they’re making it worse.”
Pollack — who said he understands Warwick officials' frustrations, as there are some parents who should take responsibility for delinquent bills — doesn’t believe there is a perfect solution. One local restaurant owner, Anjelica Penta, turned to fundraising to help.
Penta raised $4,000 in 2018 to help cover some of the lunch money debt at West Warwick schools, but when she tried to donate another $4,000 on Sunday, the school rejected her gesture, according to the Washington Post. Warwick officials said in a statement that they couldn’t accept the money because they’d have to choose which students would benefit.
Warwick schools aren't the only ones across the US that face lunch shaming –– 76% of America's school districts have kids with school lunch debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. Many schools serve an "alternate meal," like a cheese sandwich, once a student's debt hits $15, according to CNN. In some places, students with unpaid lunch debt have been branded with humiliating stamps or had their lunches thrown away once staff realized they didn’t qualify for them. Pollack doesn't believe most school staff members want to see their students experience these situations.
“I’m sure if you asked the school's guidance counselor, or social workers, or the kid’s math teacher, 'Do you want to this to happen at lunch?' they’d all say, 'No, what I really want is for that kid to walk into class ready to do math and not aggravated because they had this experience at lunch,'" Pollack said.
Slowly, policies that promote lunch shaming are being banned. New Mexico became the first state to ban lunch shaming in 2017 and Washington, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and California have since followed suit. Rhode Island is currently in the process of passing legislation to provide hot lunches for all students regardless of their parent's finances, according to the Providence Journal.