Not being able to afford food shouldn't be a source of shame, but for some Rhode Island students, that's exactly what it is. Warwick Public Schools will be giving students with school lunch debt a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and nothing else, until their accounts are current.
If the term "school lunch debt" sounds absurd, you're not alone. For starters, half of U.S. students actually get free and reduced lunch, while others have access to nutritious hot meals at very low rates thanks to cost subsidies. But sometimes that's not enough: It can be hard to afford school lunch, especially with add-ons that can make the price creep up. Across the U.S., kids get into arrears on their lunch accounts, and the response from adults is not great.
Some districts will refuse to feed kids with outstanding lunch debt, while others will force them to eat humiliating special meals that clearly mark them as different. In addition to punishing kids in the cafeteria, some districts withhold diplomas and other important documentation until kids pay. Or, more accurately, until their parents pay.
In Rhode Island, parents say the district is hounding them over trivial debts, like a nickel. A member of the community even stepped up with a donation to defray outstanding lunch debt — a really common practice — but officials refused, saying they didn't know how they'd distribute the money.
This doesn't have to happen. Some schools have lunch shaming laws that expressly prohibit making children feel bad for being unable to afford food. And in 2017, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) actually introduced a federal bill to the same effect.
That bill failed.
It's time to try again: No kid in America should be made to feel bad because they can't afford their lunch. We need a national lunch shaming bill to set a clear, consistent national standard for all districts to comply with as part of their lunch programs.
And we need to be putting more money into school lunch and the long-term goal of universal lunch. Can't have lunch debt if the lunch is free for everyone!
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