Lunch shaming is real, and can be both damaging to kids and indicative of how this country—casually, cruelly, without thought—treats those in need.
Lunch shaming is the general term for the ways in which a child can be made to feel embarrassed for being unable to pay for lunch. Last week, a federal bill aiming to prevent some of the most obvious ways this happens was proposed, but it may not go far enough.
When a child is unable to pay for lunch—usually he or she owes some money from previous lunches—states have various methods to address the problem. Many of those methods aren’t geared at all towards making sure kids have enough to eat; instead, they’re sometimes cruel, humiliating practices, like throwing food in the garbage (as it’s the cashier, not the server, who discovers the debt), forcing kids to clean tables in front of their classmates, or making kids wear some kind of symbol (a stamp, a wristband) alerting everyone that they are having trouble paying for food.
These are all symptoms, albeit cruel ones, for the fundamental problem of schools having to watch their lunch budgets so closely. If students can’t pay for their lunches, reports the New York Times, the school has to chase down outstanding bills, or find the money elsewhere, and given how underfunded public schools can be, that’s no easy task.
In 2017, New Mexico legislators created an anti-lunch-shaming bill, which is the basis for the new proposed federal law. It bans a few specific things: making a child wear a wristband, taking away a child’s hot lunch after it’s been served, and forcing children to perform chores. But, as Civil Eats notes, it may not go far enough.
Part of the bill is a “sense of Congress” resolution, which is a curious sort of non-binding form of legislation. It essentially says that everyone agrees with what’s said in the “sense of Congress” section, but it is not law, and does not force action. (If you’re wondering what the point of this sort of legislation is, good question!) That section includes a theoretical but not real ban of one of the most common forms of lunch shaming: giving a kid a cold cheese sandwich instead of the hot meal everyone else gets. According to Civil Eats, having that section be non-binding was the only way to get bipartisan support.
Until schools don’t have to worry about debts from school lunches, until schools are properly funded and all kids in public schools can receive lunch regardless of financial situation, this sort of problem will keep happening. This is a first step, but it addresses some of the symptoms, not the cause.