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What Is Lunch Shaming? How Accessibility to Lunch Impacts Student Learning

Children sit at a table eating their lunches.

What is lunch shaming? Imagine a high school cafeteria in which a student’s meal is taken away and thrown in the trash in front of his peers because his lunch account had an outstanding balance of $4.95. In another school, a student’s breakfast was thrown away due to a 30-cent debt. And one school denied a child breakfast even though the child’s mother told the school over the phone that she was on her way there to pay for it.

These scenarios are just a few examples of lunch shaming, a practice in many schools that is intended to shame students and their parents into paying overdue meal bills to the schools.

The detrimental impact of lunch shaming on students extends beyond the embarrassment and indignities they experience from being treated as inferior. A lack of regular nutritious meals affects students’ physical and mental health; it also impairs their cognitive ability. By examining the causes of lunch shaming, parents, educators, and policy makers can devise winning strategies to combat the practice.

How Flawed School Funding Leads to Lunch Shaming

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) free school lunch program serves 29.7 million students. Free lunches are available to students whose households have income at or below 130 percent of poverty. Reduced prices of 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast are offered to children whose household income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of poverty.

The American Bar Association (ABA) states that lunch shaming is the result of the way schools fund their breakfast and lunch programs. State and federal government agencies place students into two categories: those who qualify for assistance under the USDA program’s guidelines and those who must pay the set price for school-provided meals.

However, many students fall into a third category: their family income exceeds the thresholds set by the school lunch programs, but the families cannot afford to pay for their school meals. While every state operates some form of school lunch program, many of these programs are “optional and self-supporting,” according to the ABA. This prevents them from receiving government funding, although they may accept federal and state cash aid, federal commodities, and charitable donations.

States are taking steps to eliminate lunch shaming and ensure that all students receive the nutritious meals they require to thrive in school. In 2017, New Mexico became the first state to pass legislation prohibiting lunch shaming. In late 2019, California passed a similar law that guarantees lunches to all students, whether or not their parents or guardians have paid for their meals, as CNN reports.

Nevertheless, lunch shaming persists across the country in school districts that serve less nutritious “alternative meals” to students unable to pay their meal fees. These meals often consist of a simple cheese sandwich, as CNN explains.

In June 2019, Senator Tina Smith and Representative Ilhan Omar, both of Minnesota, introduced the No Shame at School Act in Congress. The federal legislation would prohibit schools from shaming students who are unable to pay their school meal fees or who have any other outstanding debt. The law would also require that schools certify students’ unpaid meal bills and would allow the federal government to reimburse the cost of meals for up to 90 days.

The Importance of Nutritious Meals to Student Success

Lunch shaming highlights the connection between nutritious meals and academic performance. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is intended to help schools provide balanced meals to children during the school day. The USDA cites a Harvard survey that found children ate 16 percent more vegetables and 23 percent more fruit in their school lunches as a result of the law, with no increase in food waste. In addition, schools have recorded a $200 million increase in revenue from school lunches.

However, the greatest benefit of more nutritious meals for students pertains to academic performance. A University of California, Berkeley study concluded that healthier school meals contributed to higher academic test scores.

Since the total number of meals served by schools didn’t increase after more nutritious meals were served, the researchers concluded that the higher test scores were the result of the improved quality of the meals students were served rather than the quantity. The researchers also found that student academic performance increases when schools contract with vendors that offer more nutritious meals even though they may cost more.

How Education Policy Can Combat Lunch Shaming

Feeding America outlines a three-part strategy for eliminating lunch shaming in US schools:

  1. Contact members of Congress and state legislators to encourage them to support legislation that prohibits schools from singling out students in front of their classmates when they are unable to pay for school meals.
  2. Request that local school districts adopt school meal strategies that emphasize students’ health and dignity. Insist that school districts make their school meal policies public and give parents the opportunity to comment on and influence those policies.
  3. Communicate with relatives, neighbors, and other community members about the importance of shame-free school meal programs and support local efforts to promote access to healthy meals for all children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that parents and education policy makers encourage school districts to teach children about the importance of nutritious meals. Part of the education occurs in the lunchroom by serving students healthy foods that they may not be familiar with. Children should be given at least 20 minutes from the time they sit down with their meals to finish eating and socializing with their classmates, according to the CDC.

Contribute to Education Policies That Promote Student Health

Widespread academic excellence cannot be achieved without active voices promoting policies that ensure students’ physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. Programs such as American University’s Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership equip educators to drive the social change required to give every student the ability to thrive in school and the opportunity to excel.

The American University program emphasizes policy, leadership, law, economics, and research to prepare graduates to contribute to the transformation of education in America. Learn more about how the Online Master of Education in Education Policy and Leadership degree program prepares tomorrow’s leaders in education.

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