I had to take a two-week break from blogging to attend to real life, but I did watch from the sidelines the entire arc of the recent “Rhode Island jelly sandwich lunch shaming” story: from the initial social media outrage, to the many resulting news stories and editorials, to the district’s contrite retreat.
But it did seem to me that a few key points were getting lost in the discussion, so even though I’m coming late to the party, I’d like to share some thoughts here.
First, to update anyone who somehow missed this news story, Warwick Schools in Rhode Island recently came under fire when it announced that it would be serving cold sunbutter-and-jelly sandwiches to children with outstanding meal balances. The district was also sharply criticized for initially refusing to accept charitable donations to reduce its meal debt (on the grounds that it was ill equipped to distribute those donations fairly). Warwick Schools then reversed course on both counts, agreeing to now serve all children a hot meal, regardless of their meal debt, and to work with its attorneys to accept donations “in compliance with the law” and to distribute them “in an equitable manner.”
But what few people seemed to realize is that when Warwick Schools first announced its “sunbutter-and-jelly sandwich” policy, it was actually trying to act more humanely toward kids with meal debt by seeking to reduce stigma in the lunch room.
I know that might seem counterintuitive, but children with meal debt in this district used to be offered cold cheese sandwiches—a lunch item that didn’t appear on the regular school menu and clearly set these kids apart from their peers. As one of its best practices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture instead suggests that districts struggling with unpaid bills “offer a simple, low-cost reimbursable alternate meal as a regular menu item. Having the alternate as a menu item available for purchase every day will help ensure children unable to pay will not be the only children eating the alternate.”
This is apparently exactly what Warwick Schools was trying to do, in that the sunbutter sandwiches were a menued item—that is, one made available to all children going through the lunch line, regardless of their meal balance. And despite media reports implying that kids with meal debt in Warwick Schools were facing “hunger or inadequate nutrition while trying to learn,” these sandwiches were reportedly offered as part of a full reimbursable meal, one which also included vegetables, fruit, and milk.
Of course, I can’t speak to how many kids without meal debt regularly select the sunbutter sandwiches in this district, or how long those sandwiches had appeared on the regular menu before the district announced its new meal debt policy. In other words, it may be that in practice, the sunbutter sandwiches were just as stigmatizing as the old cheese sandwiches. But lost in the social media outcry was the important fact that this district, which is reportedly struggling with a significant $77,000 in unpaid meal debt, was at least trying to do better.
Another inaccuracy that kept cropping up in these media reports related to a new federal lunch-shaming bill recently introduced in Congress. Press accounts invariably made it sound as if this bill would finally put a stop to giving children alternate cold meals—by far the most common form of lunch-shaming.
Yet when I analyzed this same bill in a TLT post last year, I found that this legislation, if passed, would only ban four specific practices: requiring a debt-ridden child to wear a wrist band, stamping the child’s hand or arm, requiring the child to do chores, and taking away a child’s hot meal after it has been served. The bill’s language prohibiting alternate meals, however, is presented only as a “Sense of Congress” provision, meaning it wouldn’t be enforceable.
But most importantly, what frustrated me (and many other advocates) about the Rhode Island episode is how it singled out the practices of one specific district—even as kids with meal debt are being served alternate cold meals every single day, all over the country, as well as enduring many other kinds of painful stigmatization, such as being excluded from homecoming or being threatened with a denial of their high school diplomas.
Each time these individual shaming practices are exposed in the media, the public’s condemnation is intense—as it should be. Then some charitable souls invariably raise money to pay off the debts at the school or district in question, and life goes on—until the next horrible lunch-shaming story breaks. Meanwhile, school districts around the country continue to struggle with thousands (even hundreds of thousands) of dollars in unpaid meal balances, a problem that’s only getting worse as more of them independently ban shaming practices or comply with new state laws seeking to do the same.
So here’s a crazy question. What would happen if all of this public outrage and ad hoc fundraising were channeled into a single organized campaign agitating for the one solution that would forever end both lunch-shaming and unpaid meal debt?
That solution, of course, is universal free school meals for all children, regardless of their ability to pay.
I know this idea sounds outrageous to many people: Why shell out taxpayers dollars to pay for meals for families able to afford them? But keep in mind that we willingly and appropriately pay for all other aspects of the public school day, regardless of individual students’ socioeconomic status. We don’t ask families to shell out an annual fee for their children’s textbooks, for example, or require them to pay for their use of sports equipment in the gym. We don’t charge children bus fare every morning to get to school, and we don’t ask families to shell out cash for the supplies used in science class.
Isn’t being able to eat a nutritious and wholesome mid-day meal—without shame or stigma—just as essential to learning, if not more so?
[climbs down from soapbox . . .]
Until that day comes, however, schools and districts in high poverty areas should at least take advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows them to provide free meals for all kids, without the need for income-qualifying paperwork. For example, according to a recent news story from WPRI and data from the Food Research & Action Center, 65 Rhode Island schools that meet the eligibility criteria for the CEP haven’t opted to participate.
I’ll end this post by sharing three recent and especially good articles on meal debt and lunch shaming, all of which are well worth reading:
- Candice Choi’s Associated Press story, “How ‘Lunch Shaming’ Is Facing Scrutiny Around the US“;
- Jessica Fu’s New Food Economy piece, “Countless American Families Are Saddled With Student Lunch Debt. Many Won’t Be Able to Pay It Off“; and
- Nadra Nittle’s Civil Eats piece (published today, and in which I’m quoted), “Can We Stop Kids From Being Shamed Over School Lunch Debt?“
Follow TLT on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, subscribe to Lunch Tray posts, and download my FREE 50-page guide, “How to Get Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom.” You can also now pre-order my new book Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World —coming out this fall!