Children should never be shamed when their family falls on hard times. If a family loses the ability to pay for lunch their child should receive care and concern, not a cheese sandwich.
—Celia Cole, CEO, Feeding Texas
In the rush of news stories that fly by via TV, radio, social media, and in traditional magazines and newspapers, one that captured a lot of attention recently was New Mexico’s ban on “lunch shaming.” A lot of us were shocked to discover how often kids are subjected to humiliation of various types because they are unable to pay for their lunch at school.
We often see statistics about the high percentage of public school students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, but not as much about those who are not signed up for those programs but still find they can’t pay for a standard hot lunch when family circumstances suddenly change. School districts might require these students to do chores in exchange for food, toss unpaid-for food in the trash, or serve the kids cold cheese sandwiches, all practices that may single children out for taunting or worse by their peers. New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, signed April 6, 2017, strives to ensure that all kids have access to the same nutritional lunch without shaming of any kind.
In Austin and school districts across the country, thousands of people responded to these stories and campaigns via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, with generous donations to pay off school lunch debts. As of April 11, Addie Broyles reported that all of Austin ISD’s school lunch debt was paid off —at least temporarily. AISD food services director Anneliese Tanner said that the district serves about 700 “courtesy” (unpaid) meals to students each school day, which costs about $350,000 annually.
Dallas ISD takes another route, as it declares on its website: “Breakfast, lunch, and after school meals are FREE to all students. . . . Our goal is to provide nutrition to students that fuels successful learning.”
Texas State Representative Helen Giddings (D-Dallas) responded to the media attention on this topic by pressing the legislature to pass HB 2159, a bill that defines minimum standards for all Texas public schools when a student’s lunch account runs out.
Giddings says, “I have filed HB 2159 to address this situation and ensure that every Texas child is well-nourished and focused on their education, not their next meal. Let us leave finances to the adults and keep our kids focused on actualizing their wildest dreams.”
Currently there are no guidelines to ensure that children whose lunch accounts run out of money will not be stigmatized with lower-quality food or identified in the lunch line, and there is no requirement that schools contact families to check whether those children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Another group that tackles hunger among Austin families is Keep Austin Fed, which “rescues” surplus food from the thousands of commercial kitchens in the city and gives it to people who need it.
Both Feeding Texas and Keep Austin Fed happily welcome donations.
And in case you missed it back in January, check out the inspiring story of Kealing middle-schooler Ian McKenna, who grows veggies to donate to hungry families and the Central Texas Food Bank.