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The Toxicity of Lunch Shaming

As you have probably seen in the news, New Mexico became the first state in the nation to ban lunch shaming. It’s an issue that deserves our attention not only because it embarrasses already disadvantaged students but because this shaming by adults in authority can have lasting psychological effects.

New Mexico State Senator Michael Padilla knew what it was like to grow up in poverty. The experience of living with the stigma of being poor lead him to introduce New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act. The law prohibits the practice of “publicly identify[ing] or stigmatiz[ing] a student who cannot pay for a meal or who owes a meal.” New Mexico is not alone in seeking to protect vulnerable students from being unfairly targeted because of something entirely out of their control. California and Texas have recently introduced similar anti-shaming measures.

Lunch shaming tactics may vary, but the results are upsettingly constant—public humiliation. One form of it entails requiring students to perform menial jobs around the cafeteria to work off their debt. Another cartoonishly callous approach is to discard hot lunches that had already been distributed to students and replace them with milk and fruit. There was even a report of a third grader in Alabama having the phrase “I need lunch money” stamped on his wrist for allegedly attempting to purchase a snack with insufficient funds in his account.

What may be most surprising to learn is that these are not isolated acts committed by a few rogue cafeteria employees, but in many instances, they’re practices sanctioned by a number of schools across the country. According to the principal at that Alabama elementary school, demeaning stamps and stickers, just like notes and emails, are acceptable methods for alerting parents of low or overdrawn balances.

Recognizing that these tactics might actually cause children distress, the Agriculture Department released a guide to school administrators that outlines best practices for tactfully notifying parents of negative account balances. The guide encourages school staff to “communicate low accounts balances with the family privately ahead of time, or to notify children of their low or negative balance before they get to the serving line.” It also recommends moving cashiers to the front of lunch lines, so when dealing with a child who is unable to pay for a meal, they can “address the issue discreetly before the child has chosen a meal.” The guide also explicitly discourages the use of “hand stamps, stickers, or other physical markers to identify children with meal charge debt.”

For those children living in poverty, being a victim of an act of lunch shaming can reinforce feelings of inadequacy and exacerbate feelings of anxiety and despair in their already highly stressful lives. Moreover, the fact that adults are instigators of these traumatic episodes may, along with other environmental factors, contribute to these students developing a toxic stress response system. Toxic or chronic stress can have pernicious effects on a child’s cognitive development and can lead to serious mental and physical health problems later in life.

This persistent stressfulness occurs “[w]hen strong, frequent, or prolonged adverse experiences such as extreme poverty or repeated abuse are experienced without adult support.” If these students view schools as places of abuse, they will invariably lose trust in a critical support system. Research shows that supportive, trusting relationships with adults can help these children develop healthy coping mechanisms to deal with these environmental stressors.

Lunch shaming is a senseless practice that should come to an end, especially in an education climate that is attentive to bullying and making concerted efforts to neutralize its various forms. For children of means who simply forget their lunch money, lunch shaming is a non-proportional response to an innocent mistake. For poor children, it’s a punitive reminder of their socioeconomic circumstances.


Richard Conklin, Education World Editor

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