Without Federal School-Meal Support, Lunch Shaming May Be Back on the Menu | School Lunch Shaming Is Back on the Menu

Without Federal School-Meal Support, Lunch Shaming May Be Back on the Menu

Before the pandemic, some schools determined to manage school meal debt had resorted to tactics that embarrassed kids. The government provided universal free meals for two years, but the federal waivers expired in July.

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Before the pandemic, Elizabeth Santamour dreaded seeing a certain stack of envelopes once a month in her mailbox. A third-grade teacher in Scurlock, North Carolina, she was tasked with handing out past-due cafeteria bills to her students.

“The kids knew what they were taking home to their parents and the reaction they were going to get. They knew,” Santamour said. “I had kids who left them in their book bags for days. When I handed them to some kids, they’d get upset. Others would refuse breakfast or lunch because of the expense they knew they were accruing.”

Prior to the pandemic, some schools that were determined to manage school meal debt had resorted to tactics that embarrassed kids, such as stamping their hands to remind parents of unpaid bills and substituting cold cheese sandwiches for hot meals.

Students and teachers nationwide had a two-year break from this pressure when federal pandemic waivers allowed free meals for all. That was followed by a transition year of higher per-meal reimbursements funded by the Keep Kids Fed Act. But those expired in July. Now the burden of school meal debt begins again, at a time when experts are declaring a kids’ mental health crisis as a broad array of stressors, from gun violence to climate disasters, roil their world.

The Education Data Initiative pegs the annual national public school meal debt at $262 million. What’s more, after free school meals for all ended, 67 percent of schools surveyed by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) reported an increase in stigma for low-income students who often depend on those meals as a key source of nutrition.

“Schools, families, and states really did not want to go back to having the complicated school nutrition operations where some kids have access to free meals and other kids do not, and they have to struggle with unpaid debt,” said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).

And in a small handful of states, they haven’t gone back: Lawmakers in California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont have made universally free school meals permanent. But in the rest of the country, the return to paid school meals has also brought back a host of complications.

Prior to the pandemic, some schools had resorted to tactics that embarrassed kids, such as stamping their hands to remind parents of unpaid bills and substituting cold cheese sandwiches for hot meals. Sometimes meals were thrown out in front of the children. And while experts say that fewer districts have resumed these practices—often dubbed “lunch shaming”—they haven’t gone away entirely either.

A Vicious Cycle of Debt and Stigma

In general, schools have financed breakfast and lunch programs primarily through per-meal reimbursements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). To receive those reimbursements, which vary based on family income, schools must provide meals that meet certain nutritional standards.

Children in households with incomes at or up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level can receive free meals; those whose households have incomes between 130 and 185 percent are charged 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

“We certainly hear from school districts with large immigrant communities that there are lots of families who are uncomfortable filling out that application, but definitely need assistance.”

School meal programs are expected to be self-sustaining, according to the SNA. Districts attempt to cover expenses with the federal reimbursements, as well as cafeteria sales from both full- and reduced-price meals. But that’s been increasingly difficult as food and labor costs have risen. Plus, “many of the families who are eligible for reduced-price meals still struggle with that copay,” noted Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the SNA.

And there’s another rub. Families must apply for federally subsidized meals if they are not automatically eligible through programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). “These applications for free meal service have always been a barrier for eligible families,” Pratt-Heavner added. For example, income information and the last four digits of a social security number are required. People who don’t have a social security number must check a box declaring that fact.

“We certainly hear from school districts with large immigrant communities that there are lots of families who are uncomfortable filling out that application, but definitely need assistance,” said Pratt-Heavner. And schools need the reimbursements to help cover the cost of the meals.

Illustration by Nhatt Nichols. Click to enlarge.

The application process can be a barrier for families in several ways. Juliana Cohen, an associate professor in the department of nutrition and public health at Merrimack College and an adjunct associate professor in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said that completing the form is effectively saying, “I can’t afford to feed my child.”

“Oftentimes these forms are on a brightly colored piece of paper. They say ‘Free School Lunch Form.’ And a parent has to give it to their child to bring back to the school to hand to their teacher. So, many parents are actually reluctant to even fill out the form. Additionally, there can be stigma for the child if they feel like they’re different.”

Since the pandemic reprieve from the application system, another challenge is that many families are now confused about what’s required. If they don’t apply, debt builds.

Laura Milliken, executive director of New Hampshire Hunger Solutions, believes that confusion is one of the drivers of the fast-growing meal debt among schools in her state. “As a result, we are hearing from schools that many of them have amassed quite high school meal debt from kids who eat and then families don’t pay.”

A Flurry of State Legislative Activity and Public Sentiment

There was a wave of media coverage related to lunch shaming prior to the pandemic. And it appears to have had an impact.

“People have a very visceral reaction to those stories, they get a lot of traction, and kids often have phones in school,” which allowed them to document and share the stories themselves, said FitzSimons. After the spate of publicity, experts say the overt actions diminished.

At least 20 states also have taken action against lunch shaming with specific legislation, according to FRAC. North Dakota is among the most recent, with a law signed in April that prohibits public identification or stigmatization of students whose parents have outstanding meal debt.

But some anti-shaming bills have failed. In January, for example, a New Hampshire state representative introduced such a bill, and it was killed the following month. Another effort by legislators there—a bill to raise the income threshold for reduced price lunches from 185 percent to 300 percent of the federal poverty level—made it as far as a Senate committee, which recommended delaying a decision until next year.

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And despite the gulf between states with universally free school meals and those without, it’s clear that the pandemic put a spotlight on the importance of the role of schools in feeding the nation’s children.

“There have been a lot of changes in recent years, including the recognition of the value of school meals to students’ health and academic achievement. In most schools across the country, kids, even if they don’t have money in their accounts, are getting some kind of meal,” said Pratt-Heavner of the SNA. She added that she has seen a dramatic increase in unpaid meal debt, which is an indication that kids are being fed even if they don’t have money.

“We shouldn’t encourage philanthropic solutions to policy problems. We need to address the systemic issues that make this generosity necessary.”

There have also been a number of community-wide efforts to assist families that can’t pay for their school meals. In fact, over half of school districts have received charitable donations to help pay off meal debt.

People in Michigan and Virginia have started nonprofits focused solely on relieving school meal debt. Sometimes a local foundation, small business, or church provides the funds and makes headlines. Individuals have stepped in as well.

In August, a 14-year-old in Missouri raised $400 to give to his former elementary school because he remembered not having enough money for lunch when he was there. In May, the New Hampshire family of a retired cafeteria worker who had died of cancer sold her car for $3,000 and used the money to help pay off the school’s meal debt. And at the end of last year, a former North Carolina school superintendent donated $20,000 to help pay debts owed by low-income students.

That school superintendent realized something many others probably don’t. If debt remains, it must be paid out of the school district’s general fund. “This can be the difference between being able to hire another teacher, aides, and the like for the classroom. And so, this has a profound impact on education,” said Harvard’s Cohen.

But Morgan Wittman Gramann, executive director for the North Carolina Alliance for Health, says private donations are a “temporary fix” to a recurring problem. “We shouldn’t encourage philanthropic solutions to policy problems. We need to address the systemic issues that make this generosity necessary.”

‘Vague’ and Variable School District Policies

In conversations with food service directors and parents, advocates say they’re continuing to hear about lunch shaming. “It’s still occurring, but there’s just a lot of variation,” said Cohen, who has multiple grants to examine school-based policies and is also director of the Nourish Lab.

In an effort to measure the scope of the problem, a researcher at the University of North Carolina conducted an analysis of school district meal charge policies in the state. The policies posted online by districts were “vague” and “vary in their willingness to allow meal charges, punishments, and implementation,” according to the report. Forty percent of school districts had a policy to serve those students “an alternative meal,” typically without meat to reduce the cost.

“We’ve heard stories of some school districts that have created robocalls that call the parent every single night until the debt is paid off.”

A local news station reported that when an alternative meal is served in North Carolina’s Guilford County schools, for example, the district’s executive director of school nutrition said that it “looks similar to the daily reimbursable meal to avoid identifying that student.” But the question remains: How does that alternative meal make the child feel?

Some schools in the state have also singled out students who have a balance at the end of the year. In May, a middle school in Granville County, North Carolina, surprised parents with an email warning that students with unpaid meal bills would be excluded from certain end-of-the-year school events. “It’s just an effort to try to encourage our families to help us take care of these bills so that our local taxpayers don’t have to rely on clearing this up,” the county’s associate superintendent told a local ABC affiliate.

Another tactic: robocalls. “We’ve heard stories of some school districts that have created robocalls that call the parent every single night until the debt is paid off,” said Cohen.

In some places—including Douglas County, Colorado, and Knox County, Tennessee—debt collectors are even called in.

All of this is in stark contrast to the best practices FRAC has developed on how schools should engage with households about school meal debt. The group encourages contact to be made by “trusted school officials” and warns against “harsh tactics,” such as charging households added fees and withholding school records. According to FRAC, 20 states still have no legislation addressing issues such as unpaid school meal fees and outreach programs.

Mental Health Impact

Experts agree that one of the most important reasons to provide free school meals is to reduce overall food insecurity in households, both for school children and their families. When school meals are free, resources can be shifted to meals at home.

School meals are about more than nutrition. Food insecurity affects mental health—in fact, it can cause psychological distress. A 2019 study conducted by University of California researchers explored the awareness levels and feelings of 60 San Francisco Bay Area children (aged 7 to 14 years) whose parent had reported household food insecurity during the previous year. It yielded “eye-opening and impactful” results, said Cindy Leung, the lead author.

First of all, the children knew what was going on. “They know that their parents are struggling to put food on the table. . . . They notice when their parents are eating toast or cereal and they have eggs for breakfast. They know when their SNAP or WIC benefits are coming in and that’s when they can ask for something they want at the grocery store. They know if they get free or reduced lunch,” Leung said.

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Second, they experienced psychological impacts beyond stress and anxiety. Kids felt anger and frustration at not being able to have the foods they wanted, concern about their parents, loneliness because they couldn’t talk to their friends about these problems, and embarrassment about how empty their refrigerators were.

“What we’re moving into now is wanting to call this a form of toxic stress,” said Leung. That’s a label that has been given to serious adverse events, like suffering from abuse, witnessing domestic violence, or experiencing a death of a family member.

The pandemic, however, shined a light on the policy levers that can improve food security. “We saw the swiftness and efficiency with which we were able to provide food and economic support to families. It has shown that we can prevent food insecurity in children,” said Leung, who is now an assistant professor of public health nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

What Free Meals for All Feels Like

In addition to the eight states that have made universally free school meals permanent, a few states have temporary policies in place. For the 2023–2024 school year, for example, no public-school student in Nevada will have to pay for meals. And in at least 20 other states, legislators are working to pass bills to institute free school meals, according to FRAC.

“There was also a huge increase in the number of schools providing free meals to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP),” FRAC’s FitzSimons added. After experiencing the benefits of universally free school meals during the pandemic, close to 7,000 more schools adopted CEP for 2022–2023, an increase of 20 percent over the previous year.

“Not only are we providing all children nutrients, but universal free school meals reduce the stigma of who’s accessing school meals.”

CEP allows a school or district to provide free meals if 40 percent or more of children are in a program such as SNAP or a category that includes homeless, migrant, and foster care children. With CEP, family members are not subjected to the stigma of filling out applications.

Massachusetts is the most recent state to adopt universally free school meals. When Governor Maura Healey signed permanent funding for the program in August, she called it “an investment in childhood nutrition that’s also removing a source of stress from our schools and our homes.”

During the 2022–2023 school year, Massachusetts had authorized a one-year temporary extension of free school meals. Nourish Lab, directed by Cohen, surveyed parents about what would occur if the policy ended. In a surprising insight, roughly two-thirds of households near eligibility for free or reduced-price meals and one-third of middle-class households said that they may not have enough food in their homes if school meals were not free.

Cohen said this reflects federal eligibility criteria that does not take into account the “incredibly high cost of living” in many places and the fact that many so-called middle-class families are also struggling.

The Nourish Lab study also found that 42 percent of families with children eligible for free or reduced-priced meals reported their child would be less likely to eat a school meal next year if it was not free for all children.

That’s because if school meals aren’t free for all, kids associate them with subsidized food for low-income families. But when the stigma is removed, kids are no longer embarrassed to eat them, and overall meal participation increases. That dynamic has played out in case studies around the world and is now being experienced by American kids in a growing number of states.

“There is so much movement in this area,” Leung added. “Not only are we providing all children nutrients, but universal free school meals reduce the stigma of who’s accessing school meals. There’s no more lunch shaming with the cheese sandwiches. So, how can we leverage this momentum?”

Lynn Fantom is a freelance reporter based in New York City and Downeast Maine. A 2018 graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she previously spent 40 years in business. The company she founded in 2002 was recognized for its diversity and inclusion and won eight “Best Places to Work” awards. Read more >

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