Shaming poor children through food

In the US, it seems people believe that we should never let the poor forget that they are not only poor but that it is also their fault for being so. Even children must be made to feel ashamed for essentially having poor parents. For example, about 20 million children in US schools (about 40% of all US students) qualify for free or reduced cost lunches at school because the family income is too low. This is quite a stunning figure for one of the richest countries in the world and is a stark reminder of how skewed wealth and income is here.

But one would think that one would try to shield those children and their peers from the fact that they are eligible for free lunches. The best way to do that would be to give everyone a free lunch but of course that would be a form of the dreaded socialism and will not do. Another option would be to give free lunches to those who qualify. The cut-off family income for free lunches is $31,400 for a family of four.

But the problem is that many schools offer reduced price lunches where the cut off for eligibility is $45,000 and then the question arises of what to do if parents do not pay the amount expected from them or for those who cannot afford to pay cash to get a hot lunch. What some schools do in such cases is reprehensible.

When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many districts, including Antignolo’s, take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk. Some schools take away their lunch entirely.

All the other kids in the lunch line know what’s going on. Getting that brown bag is the lunch line equivalent of being branded with a Scarlet Letter. It’s been dubbed “school lunch shaming.”

The USDA is urging districts to stop “embarrassing” and “singling out” students who don’t have enough money for lunch. On Monday, US Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico introduced a bill in Congress, the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, to ban schools from singling children out “by requiring them to wear wristbands or hand stamps or do extra chores” if they have unpaid lunch bills.

Schools resort to cheese-sandwich shaming to get lunch debts paid off because they have to fork over the money at the end of the year to cover whatever debt parents don’t pay.

We provide free textbooks and bus transportation to all students irrespective of income. So why not free lunches? True, it is not cheap to do so but surely it is worthwhile to prevent children being shamed in front of their peers just for being poorer than them. I suspect that many politicians think that people are poor because they are lazy or otherwise unworthy and shaming them and their children is the way to get them to stop being poor.


  1. TGAP Dad says

    My wife works for the food service (contract) provider for a public school system. Among her duties in that role are as cashier. This is something she is required by her employer to do, although in her case it’s done as politely as she can manage. It’s worth pointing out the evil that is done so cavalierly by simply squeezing the budgets. Then the implementation and enforcing of the evil is done by the lowest level workers. The obvious “solution” for the districts then is to outsource that activity to a contractor, and likewise squeeze them as needed.
    The cafeteria workers, and to a lesser extent school districts, are blameless.
    The real guilt is borne by all of us, who let this happen by our apathy and votes who brought us the politicians, who had told us they would do these things.

  2. Mano Singham says

    TGAP Dad,

    This is why I never blame the lower-level employees for such actions.They are often placed in impossible positions by their employers. The article mentioned one person who was fired because they paid for a child’s lunch rather than seeing the child go hungry.

  3. Peter B says

    I read a piece of fiction that talks of a related problem. Two orphaned girls are listening to the Child Protective Services supervisor about school lunches:

    Your mom has money left on your school lunch tickets. CPS will put both of you down for free lunch plus. The plus part means that you can get extras for free. DO NOT abuse that. I will know. Your tickets and their numbers will not change. Three years ago somebody smart finally figured out that the different color of free vs. full price lunch tickets left the free lunch students open to shaming by kids from more well off families. CPS had only been after them for ten years….

    This only covers one problem these orphans are facing. The story does not mention families who are “too well off” to receive a free lunch but can not afford to pay enough to satisfy the rules.

    I wonder what school administrators would do if a collection of fully paid and free lunch children collectively pooled their lunches with the “brown paper bag lunch” children.

  4. blarg says

    “The cafeteria workers, and to a lesser extent school districts, are blameless.”

    The functionaries of cruelty bear plenty of blame for executing those actions.
    It sounds like your wife is on the he front line, the first one with the ability to say no and chooses not to. Whether it is to keep her job or to not be singled out as someone who doesn’t follow rules isn’t any different to that child as someone who enjoys it and feels morally superior to them. The reason doesn’t really matter much, she is trading her comfort for the child’s. Yes, those who make the decisions, for whatever reason, and those who voted those decision makers hold their own blame, and deservedly so. But this is hurting a child, in the form of shaming and it takes someone to carry it out to happen.

  5. Mano Singham says


    That seems a little harsh and unfair. By singling out the person on the front line, aren’t we excusing our collective responsibility? It is easy for us to say that the person should walk away from the situation but it is not easy for most people to do that. And even if one person quits in protest, that person can be easily replaced. The solution to problems like this is collective action, putting pressure on the system to do right by the children. Parents in the school system and the voters can demand changes and that would be far more effective than one person quitting.

  6. says

    Maybe that woman would actually like to feed her children as well.
    Sure, there is something to be said about the “I just followed orders” argument not being a very good one, but we’re not talking about ethnic cleansing here.

  7. blarg says

    Unfair? Yes, possibly a little. But that is where the actual consequences of an action lie. This is a small act that may color the rest a child’s life. The OP’s statement was that those workers are “blameless”… That is what I cannot support. Yes we have collective responsibilities, but that means the problem can and should be addressed in multiple ways. Saying it only is the fault of those higher up seems to be deflecting blame for not standing up when one has a chance. Just following orders, as it were, is a common excuse we all fall in when decisions are hard or will cause us personal discomfort.
    Sure one person saying no or one person quitting doesn’t stop the machine any more than a one person protest or one person not moving to the back of the bus.
    But, because I feel the actions of individual people can matter, I quit the best paying job I ever had when the company retooled it’s efforts for the Afghan/Iraq wars. This was during the Great Recession and things were hard for me and my family for a long time. I have been singled out and made uncomfortable for pointing out unjust policies. I have passed on several other jobs/contracts throughout the years because what I do with my labors matter. I can vote and it counts for little. I can demonstrate and it seems, at most, an inconvenience to the powerful. If there is one thing I can do, one thing that I control fully, it is to make sure I do not bend my back to help the powerful hurt others. Likely, all this meant was that I only made life harder for myself and my family than was necessary, but I made MY difference.
    So, sure I understand why someone wouldn’t choose to stand up, but not blameless.
    — A working class nobody.

  8. Chiroptera says

    Mano Singham, #3: The article mentioned one person who was fired because they paid for a child’s lunch rather than seeing the child go hungry.

    Well, that sounds like it’s not really about unpaid debts, doesn’t it?

  9. CJO says

    It’s not so important, vis a vis the poor themselves, that they be regarded as to blame for their economic circumstances, but it is important for the economic elite in a so-called “free market system” to make sure that everyone else regards the poor as to blame, because, by inference, that would mean that the rich deserve to be rich, that they, too, are responsible for their condition. This is what the propaganda concept “The American Dream” has always been about: convince people that an upstanding, hardworking, godfearing attitude is all they need to succeed, and they will come to believe that those who have succeeded did so by those means and not, say, by inheriting their wealth or engaging in crony-capitalism or what have you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *