Imagine this: your teenager arrives at school and attends an assembly to prepare for her upcoming graduation. She settles in and waits to hear her name called from the stage. Instead, she learns she may not receive her diploma. The reason? Unpaid school lunch debt.
That’s what happened at Fair Lawn High School in New Jersey last month, when the school publicly told students they had to pay their lunchroom debt in order to graduate.
Unpaid school lunch debt is a challenge facing many school districts across the nation: during the 2010-2011 school year, 58 percent of school food authorities (or SFAs) incurred unpaid meal costs. At the same time, recent media coverage has highlighted a range of “shaming” practices intended to recoup costs, including: requiring chores as compensation for meals, stamping students’ arms, publicly throwing away their food, and denying students the typical hot meal distributed to their peers. In an effort to support students and families while helping SFAs prevent meal debt, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tasked SFAs with crafting written plans regarding unpaid lunch bills by July 1 of this year.
In addition to this new federal requirement, states are also working to address school lunch shaming through legislative action. It is notable, however, that these efforts have focused squarely on banning shaming practices, missing an opportunity to also address the underlying factors that lead to lunch shaming.
In New Mexico, for example, legislators passed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights in April to help families access information regarding free and reduced-fee meals and provide students a meal regardless of their debt status. The legislation prohibits stigmatizing and discriminatory practices against students with unpaid meals and directs school staff to communicate solely with parents and guardians about funds. Texas has proposed similar legislation, adding a grace period of at least 2 weeks for students with debt, during which they would continue eating regular meals and school staff would work with families to determine the appropriate solution. Additionally, California has legislation on deck that would prohibit LEAs from involving children in debt collection, denying them a meal, or treating them differently from students without unpaid meal debt. Few, if any, of these efforts include preventative measures to address the underlying norms and contexts that may give rise to shaming practices.
As state and federal authorities propose new policies to directly address shaming practices, they are missing an opportunity to ensure that school environments—lunchrooms, in this case—support students’ social and emotional well-being. Furthermore, their efforts suggest that they’ve overlooked what shaming practices may imply about the social and emotional competencies of the school staff that use them. School lunch programs that are intended to promote one dimension of student health (i.e., nutrition) become counterproductive if administered in ways that undermine other dimensions (i.e., social and emotional well-being). A 2009 study suggests that experiencing shame in adolescence may result in increased aggression toward others.
State and local efforts to create healthy school environments should help schools make connections across multiple dimensions of student health: physical, mental, social, emotional, and behavioral. Prohibitions alone may prove useful in reducing shaming practices, but these should be reinforced with training to help school staff understand how their actions may promote or inhibit child well-being. Research on educators’ social and emotional competencies suggests that student-teacher and student-student relationships, as well as students’ own behavior and emotional regulation, can improve as teachers develop these skills. This type of professional development would empower school staff to contribute positively to the overall health of the students.
The New Mexico lawmaker who crafted the anti-shaming legislation recalled his experience as a low-income student who relied on his friendships with kind lunchroom workers. While his experience was the impetus for his anti-shaming legislation, his story also demonstrates the need to promote empathy and relationship-building skills in school lunchrooms and elsewhere. With the heightened attention to shaming in the lunchroom, SFAs and states should consider comprehensive prevention strategies that empower school staff to nourish the physical and emotional health of all students.