US moves to ban 'lunch shaming' kids for unpaid school meals

Caitlin Dolan, 13, was denied lunch at school on her first day of 7th grade over an outstanding balance.
Caitlin Dolan, 13, was denied lunch at school on her first day of 7th grade over an outstanding balance.PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - In some schools, children are forced to mop cafeteria floors. In others, their hot meal is taken away and thrown in the trash. In extreme cases, students are sent home with a stamp on their arm that reads "I owe lunch money".

Such scenes, worthy of a Charles Dickens novel, have played out in schools across the United States as students whose parents fall behind in meal payments endure what is called "lunch shaming".

The practice gained national attention at the start of the school year when a cafeteria worker in Pennsylvania quit in outrage after having to take away a child's hot meal. More recently, the issue resurfaced after the state of New Mexico passed the first-of-its-kind legislation banning lunch shaming.

Several other states, including California and Texas, are considering similar legislation, hoping to shield needy children from becoming pawns in a quarrel not of their making.

"The practice is everywhere," said Ms Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, an anti-poverty group that spearheaded the new law in the western state that has some of the highest child hunger rates in the country.

"We have heard of kids in some states standing in line with their tray of hot food and then they reach the cashier and find out they don't have enough money on their account," Ms Ramo added.

"So the food is literally thrown away and the child is given a cheese sandwich or nothing."

By "shaming" the kids, she said, school officials believe parents will be spurred to pay the outstanding lunch bill.

Mr Michael Padilla, a New Mexico state senator who sponsored the Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights adopted last month, said he was driven to act given his own background growing up in poverty.

'Mop floors, clean tables'

"When I was a kid, I had to mop the school cafeteria floors and put the tables and chairs down and up again and work in the kitchen," he told AFP.

"But then fast-forward 30 years later, I come to find out that in Alabama they are stamping on a child's arm 'I don't have lunch money' and making the child go through their school day with that."

While two cafeteria workers - "Miss Ortiz and Miss Jackson" - looked out for him as a child and made sure he never went hungry, he said others are not as fortunate and have to suffer through the stigma associated with their social status.

"The legislation we passed takes the responsibility of the school lunch debt and places it squarely on the parents," he  said.

"It does not allow the school to punish the child by shaming them, putting a stamp on their arm, having them do menial work or giving them a lunch that isn't the same as everyone else."

According to a 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association, a non-profit group, about three quarters of school districts in the US had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the last school year. The amount of money owed ranged from a few thousand dollars in some districts to millions in larger ones, according to the association.

Schools differ in their response to the problem but typically they provide a child whose parents fall behind in payments a cheese sandwich instead of a hot meal.

'I can't do this'

In many cases, teachers, cafeteria workers and community donors step up to pay the fees and spare a child from being ostracised.

Ms Stacy Koltiska, a mother of three who worked in a cafeteria at an elementary school in Pennsylvania for three years, quit her job in September after being forced to deny a hot meal to a first grader during the first week of school.

"I made him cry because I literally took away the chicken I had just served him and threw it in the trash since he owed a balance and I gave him a cheese sandwich," she told AFP.

"His little eyes welled up with tears and I'm like, 'I can't do this. This is ridiculous.'"

In her resignation letter, which made headlines, Ms Koltiska said she could no longer "work for an institution that would withhold food and humiliate a child over US$2.05".

"I mean how do you expect kids to go all day, focus, concentrate, do well in school for eight hours without being fed?" she told AFP. "We feed prisoners three times a day and we can't feed our children."