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Lunch-shaming is not the lesson we need to teach

This undated photo shows a student eating lunch at school. John Huff/Portsmouth Herald via AP/Portsmouth Herald via AP

America’s school lunch menu is served cold, with a side of classism and food shaming.

Though students in Warwick, R.I., aren’t eating sunbutter and jelly sandwiches for lunch today, kids are still going hungry while adults are caught up in paycheck policing.

When the Warwick Public Schools announced May 5 that cold meals would be served to kids whose parents owed lunch money, the plan ignited national headlines. The backlash prevented administrators from moving forward with the cruel policy.

Yogurt company Chobani put up nearly $50,000 to help settle some of the debts and raise awareness about food insecurity. The district also set up a donations form.

Much of the conversation focused on students in free and reduced-price lunch programs. Access to food is vital for children in a country where food security is a problem.


More than 30 million students participate in the National School Lunch Program that provides free and low-cost meals. In Warwick, that includes 34 percent of the district’s students.

What about the other kids? In America, the attitude seems to be if you aren’t on free or reduced lunch, your parents must have the money to pay.

Warwick Public Schools took this tone-deaf stance in a Facebook statement posted last week: “Please note that 72 percent of the debt has been accrued by paying students, *not* children on the Free and Reduced Lunch Plan.”

Please note the asterisks.

Many of the online comments echoed that sentiment: If the kids don’t get free or reduced lunch, their parents have no excuse not to pay.


Let’s talk about the road to free and reduced lunch. Government guidelines mandate children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free lunch. Kids in households with incomes between 130 to 185 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for reduced-price lunch. They can’t be charged more than 40 cents to eat.


In Warwick, the average income per person is $37,461, according to the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training.

But according to Sperling’s Best Places, the cost of living is higher there than the national average and rent for a two-bedroom apartment averages $1,203 a month.

You think a single parent making $40,000 a year isn’t stretching every dollar to make ends meet? On that salary, a two-bedroom apartment is barely affordable with every other bill in the mix.

Yet, only a single parent of one who makes less than $30,451 can enroll their child in the reduced-price lunch program. A single parent of one has to make less than $21,398 to qualify for free lunch for their kid.

It’s not easy to qualify for free food. It requires the most dire circumstances and leaves no nuance for the everyday struggle: no room for divorce, layoffs, or doing your best in a system designed to trap a lot of people in poverty.

In America, you’re only deserving of grace if you meet The Haves’ very limited definition of The Have-nots. And even then, help is limited.

The bulk of the students in lunch money debt are not enrolled in free and reduced lunch. But some of them qualify and incur debt based on snacks they purchase that aren’t included in the program. Parents are expected to teach their children to micromanage their hunger or put it on the tab.

When it goes unpaid — lunch program or not — children can be subject to the shaming of hand stamps, jelly or cold cheese sandwiches, or being kept from participating in graduation, as has happened in Denver, Phoenix, and Minnesota.


In January, a collection agency started chasing down Cranston, R.I., parents over lunch money. Imagine your credit being ruined over lunch debt while you’re already living paycheck to paycheck.

In Maine, a bill forbidding schools from food-shaming was unanimously supported by the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in February and is headed to the House.

And on Tuesday, the Warwick Public Schools will hold a meeting to revise the lunch policy.

What we need is a nationwide school lunch revolution. No more cafeteria classism.

Everyone should eat for free, regardless of income. In school, you shouldn’t have to qualify to eat. Food should be accessible to everyone.

Instead we want to teach kids to hunger shame. We want them to grow up to be the kind of adults who snap photos of public transit officials eating on the train, as recently happened in Washington, D.C. The intent was to get the employee in trouble for breaking a foolish no-food rule. God forbid people feed themselves on limited lunch breaks.

There should be no shame involved in nourishment. Hunger strikes every one of us, regardless of income. Some of us are just lucky enough to feed the pain.

In 2017, research by the US Department of Agriculture found that 15 million households were food insecure, meaning there weren’t enough resources for everyone to eat all the time. According to hunger relief organization Feeding America, that translates to 40 million Americans, including more than 12 million children.

Some years, I qualified for reduced lunch as a child. Some years it was free. And some years we weren’t poor enough.


My mama always had a job. It wasn’t always enough to save us from evictions. And she almost always found a way to cook up a hot meal I could heat up or made sure there was ramen or a TV dinner. But we had our lights-out, neighbors-bringing-over-plates moments. We were one-foot-in, one-foot-out type middle class. Some years she had money. Some years she had food stamps.

Now, I eat when I’m hungry. I indulge every craving. I have friends who tease me over my pantry filled with snacks. When I can, I pick up the tab for the young people in my life. I send gift cards to their fave lunch places. I take them out to restaurants they’ve never been.

Philando Castile, the 32-year-old Minnesota cafeteria supervisor killed by police, often paid for the lunches of students at his school. His mother, Valerie Castile, gave $8,000 to a Minnesota high school to settle school lunch debts earlier this month. The donation was given on behalf of the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, an organization started with settlement money and dedicated to helping victims of gun violence and police violence. And to help settle school lunch debts.

Because hunger is a form of violence, too. If our taxes and government dollars can’t feed our children at school, what are we doing?

As presidential candidates are talking about fee-free colleges and loan forgiveness, they have to talk about food and schools, too. Lunch-shaming is not the lesson we need to teach.


When we talk about hunger, understand that it’s not just the rich kids or the free- and reduced-lunch kids who have to eat.

Everybody eats. Until they do, we’re starving for democracy.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.