school lunch debt
Some students are being shamed in schools over their school lunch debt. Source: Shutterstock

School lunch debt is a burgeoning problem for students and parents in the US. 

According to non-profit group School Nutrition Association (SNA) – which represents 58,000 school nutrition professionals across the US – 75 percent of responding districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2017/18 school year. 

Compared to previous SNA surveys, the median amount of unpaid meal debt per-district rose by 70 percent since the 2012/13 school year.

Students often go hungry or are shamed when their parents are unable to pay or afford their school lunches.  

mlive reported that one parent, Harmony Lloyd, said her son witnessed a cafeteria worker throw out another student’s meal because they didn’t have enough money to pay for it.

Other reports have found schools threatening to bar students from attending their graduation ceremonies over their school lunch debt, while a Rhode Island public school district served students with lunch debt a separate cold meal compared to students with balance in their lunch accounts.

Reports such as these have raised questions over the ethics of addressing student lunch debt with students directly.

Speaking to SheKnows, therapist and social worker said: “Being denied access to food because of money that is due can create emotional scars that follow children the rest of their life.”

“A sense of shame, low self esteem and low self worth can be the result of enforcing rules around lunch debt.” 

Addressing “lunch shaming”

Kids become victims of school lunch debt. Source: Shutterstock

For those eager to lend a helping hand, Dr Powell suggests creating a fund that allows community members to donate anonymously to help clear school debt. 

“The names of the identifying children do not need to be used but giving their age and the grade that they are in could humanise the effort and encourage community members to donate generously,” she was quoted saying. 

Meanwhile, the Michigan Senate has introduced a bill that aims to end the “lunch shaming” practices towards students.

If passed, the Senate Bill 668 would bar the board of a school district or its board of directors from publicly identifying or stigmatising a pupil who cannot pay for a school meal or who has school lunch debt by requiring them to wear a wristband or handstamp, among other means.

They also cannot require students to perform chores or other work to pay for their school meals, and cannot communicate directly with pupils about a school meal debt unless certain requirements are met.

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