By Carol Abbey-Mensah
A Michigan lawmaker is renewing an effort to prohibit schools from stigmatizing students who owe lunch money or lack enough to buy a school meal.
This practice, known as lunch shaming, sometimes involves kitchen staff throwing away students’ hot lunches and offering them cold sandwiches.
While the purpose is to push parents to settle the debts of their wards, it also embarrasses the kids because they are identified and sometimes picked on by their peers.
To curb lunch shaming in Michigan school districts, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D–Flint, has reintroduced The Hunger Free Students Bill of Rights.
“Sometimes students will receive a substandard lunch, or they are forced to perform chores or wear a stigmatizing wristband,” Ananich said.
His bill aims to prevent these acts by ensuring that school boards not publicly identify or stigmatize students who cannot pay for a school meal or owe a lunch debt.
“No child should be publicly embarrassed in front of their peers due to a low balance,” Ananich said. “Matters of lunch account balances should be taken up with students’ parents.”
All of the Great Lakes states have introduced and passed legislation and programs to tackle lunch shaming. Minnesota was the first to pass a lunch shaming law in 2014.
Apart from preventing the stigmatization of students, the bill would require school boards to ensure the confidentiality of pupils who qualify for free and reduced meals.
A similar bill was unsuccessful in 2018.
Often it requires years of work and introducing a bill several times to finally get it over the finish line, Ananich said.
He predicts that as more parents, students and teachers share stories of lunch shaming policies they see in their schools, more legislators will have an interest in working with me on this legislation.
Harmony Lloyd who lives in Grand Blanc, Michigan, inspired Ananich’s legislation. She became interested in lunch shaming in 2018 after she heard of a local child’s lunch thrown away due to lunch debt.
“I vaguely recollected hearing stories of kids having lunch debt,” Lloyd said. “But it wasn’t until my son came home and told me the story, that I really began researching the issue.”
Lloyd called a woman in the school cafeteria to check out the story.
“She confirmed that this was the policy and that it happened often,” Lloyd said. “She also shared that the cafeteria workers hated to do it, but were told they would be fired if they gave away any lunches.”
After bringing the issue up at a school board meeting and having a friend donate some money to support the kids in debt, Lloyd was contacted by other parents who shared stories of this still happening.
“This is when I reached out to the media and to Sen. Ananich,” Lloyd said.
Lunch shaming is not new news.
In a New York elementary school about 10 years ago, Tate Wyatt could not afford a hot lunch.
He was embarrassed by the cafeteria staff and got picked on by friends.
“Everyone else would get their lunch and I would get pulled out of the line and told I would get a sandwich and a juice box,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt is not the only one.
At age 15, Evan Lane, then a student in the Fort Wayne Community schools in Indiana, said he went through a similar ordeal, where he would rather go hungry than receive a frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“It gives me a sour taste in my mouth whenever I think of it,” said Lane, now a senior at Ball College in Indiana. “It ruined entire years of my education, as I was more focused on the fact that I was starving rather than on class.”
It felt as if the school wanted to make profit off of me, rather than actually creating a safe learning environment, Lane said.
Although a bill like this could help with this issue, there must also be good communication and understanding, between parents, school districts and food service workers, said Lori Adkins, a child nutrition consultant with Oakland Schools in Michigan.
“The food service workers must understand what the policies are, so that they will be able to deal with issues like this appropriately,” Adkins said.
When it comes to communicating with parents, school districts are already putting in effort.
“School districts send emails to parents telling them about balances, but sometimes the parents can’t pay because they have fallen on hard times,” Adkins said.
Lloyd also believes that awareness could also help.
As more people become aware of the issue, I think Michigan has a good opportunity to pass common sense, bipartisan legislation that is good for our kids, Lloyd said.
“I have high hopes this will be the year we make it happen,” Lloyd said.