Just when I thought I’d heard everything, I read this week in the Sacramento Bee that there is a thing called “lunch shaming.” This can take a number of forms, but it involves kids, including little ones in first and second grade, who come to school without a lunch or any money to buy one. What the school does about this situation varies greatly from one district to another.
Some schools advance the kid the money needed to buy lunch. Others let the kid go hungry. Apparently, however, many schools take a middle road in which they provide kids in this predicament with a “basic lunch” such as a cheese sandwich.
The shaming comes in when kids are embarrassed when they don’t get the same hot lunch that their peers are eating but instead are stuck with a bland alternative lunch. Most of the class may be enjoying pizza and salad, but the hapless kid with no lunch money is given some cheese sticks and crackers or a cheese sandwich. Some school districts have elected to stop this practice and let the kid have the regular hot lunch. And here in California, a bill has now been introduced in the state legislature prohibiting schools from providing moneyless students with an alternative lunch.
Interestingly, the Bee article failed to mention the shaming that occurs when a poor kid brings his lunch from home, which turns out to be something sparse — such as a plain cheese sandwich. When I was in school, eons ago, lots of kids faced this situation and no one thought anything about it. Of course, the school can’t do anything about that because it has no control of parents who send their kids to school with a crappy lunch. What they do have control over is what they give those kids who come to school with no lunch at all. Gee, if I had known about this back in the day, I may have conveniently forgotten to take my brown bag sandwich on a day when the school lunch menu showed something good was being served.
Apparently, the shaming gets worse. Schools have taken a variety of draconian measures to collect lunch money from parents who fail to load money onto their children’s accounts. These range from sending letters home with the kid to posting lists on the wall to stamping a kid’s arm with the words “Lunch Money.”
To their credit, many school districts have given up on such tactics in favor of contacting the parent directly via email or phone calls.
So what is causing kids to arrive at school without any lunch or money? Many parents, of course, are very poor, qualifying their kids for free breakfast and lunch. The problem is that parents forget to fill out the paperwork necessary for their kids to get on the program. My guess is that some parents have other things on their minds (like surviving another month) and that others just don’t give a darn. Then there are those parents who don’t read very well and are unlikely to understand any paperwork set in front of them.
An aspect of this story that particularly fascinated me is the price of a school lunch. When I was a kid, it was 40 cents. If we brought a lunch from home, we could buy a half-pint of milk to go with it for four cents. My parents would keep a penny cup on the dresser in their bedroom, from which we were expected to remember to extract the four pennies necessary to buy milk. Today, however, the typical price of a school lunch is $2.75. This is almost a sevenfold increase over the intervening decades. I can understand parents being unable or unwilling to pay 55 to 60 dollars per month for their kids’ lunches.
So what should the schools do about this situation? Many say that kids should not be punished for the shortcomings of their parents. While not depriving kids of food just because their parents make poor choices resonates with me on a visceral level, ultimately the sins of the parents are always visited upon the sons. Kids cannot be taken away from their parents just because they happened to be born into poor families. So one way or the other, the kids are the ones who suffer.
I propose that the answer to the “lunch shaming” problem is to provide all schoolkids with free breakfast and lunch. The feds, state and local governments, and the school districts will have to work out the fiscal arrangements needed to pay for this. Neither the kids nor the teachers nor the school administrators should ever have to be concerned about whether a student will end up with an inferior lunch or no lunch at all.
As for those who would criticize my “welfare state” attitude, I say hands off the innocents. Our youngest Americans are our future. Jeopardizing the future of our nation by tolerating kids who are not prepared to learn because they have nothing to eat is simply unacceptable in the wealthiest nation on earth.