Lunch Shaming and the Hunger-Free Student Bill of Rights

When people need help, often one of the barriers to getting help is that they feel ashamed. This blog post is one example of what I’m talking about. It’s about lunch shaming – an embarrassing, negative impact on a child in front of their peers.

There have been numerous well-publicized cases of lunch shaming across the country and right here in Michigan, where students have been punished or embarrassed because they don’t have money in their school account to pay for lunch.  

It happened this school year in Grand Blanc. A seventh grade student got lunch and walked to the table to eat, only to have a cafeteria worker grab the lunch and throw it away due to insufficient funds in the child’s account. The incident sparked outrage and legislation is now pending in Lansing to stop this from happening to others.

“I doubt any kid knows exactly how much money is in their account,” says State Senator Jim Ananich (D-Flint), who introduced Senate Bill 1078 known as the Hunger-Free Student Bill of Rights. He spoke with Gleaners President Gerry Brisson and Dr. Phil Knight, Executive Director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan, during an episode of the Food For Thought radio show on WJR. 

“That’s something between the school and the parent. Sometimes things happen. Sometimes maybe they have a financial issue. More often than not, they probably just forgot to reload the food on the account.”

Photo: HungerNet

“With the technology we have and the understanding that if you don’t have a good, nutritious meal before school or during school you’re just not going to learn as well, I think we need to find an answer,” Sen. Ananich adds. “And I don’t think [taking food away from students] is an acceptable one.”

The bill, currently being reviewed by the committee on education, aims to end lunch shaming by stating “a public-school academy shall not publicly identify or stigmatize a pupil who cannot pay for a meal or who owes a meal debt.” The bill outlines a list of things schools cannot do to a student with school lunch debt including identifying them with a stamp or wristband, requiring them to do chores to pay for the meal, or communicating with the student about the debt among other things. 

The bill also requires schools to provide a nutritious lunch for students despite the debt owed on an account. 

“I get it schools are strapped,” Sen. Ananich adds. “They’ve seen so many cuts over the last eight years that they are looking for nickels any way they can find it – but there has got to be a way you can work directly with the parent… As a society that claims to care about people, we need to err on the side of making sure people have access to good food and figure out how we pay for it later.”

There are tens of thousands of students across Michigan and the US attending school from food-insecure homes. Often, school is where they get the balance of their nourishment.

Students at a breakfast program. Photo: HungerNet

Grand Blanc schools are also making changes to prevent lunch shaming including reworking the way they communicate with parents. The district is examining and working to update its policies so the child isn’t the one taking the blame for lunch debt.

“This is a convoluted issue for a multitude of reasons… We want to keep that part of it at the adult level and that is what Grand Blanc is trying to do moving forward,” says Clarence Garner, superintendent of Grand Blanc Community Schools, one of the largest school districts in Michigan. “Then, at the same time, ensuring that the child has food. We know that’s key.”

Lunch shaming is not just a problem in Michigan – it’s a hot topic across the country. Fourteen other states are considering similar legislation and some have signed the Hunger-Free Student Bill of Rights into law. It’s an important step – one that will hopefully ensure students don’t go hungry at lunchtime and avoid some of the scars that come from food insecurity. By removing the barrier of shame, we can empower people to get the help they need so our children can thrive. We’ll continue to follow the Hunger-Free Student Bill of Rights in Michigan and let you know what happens.

3 Ways You Can Help

  1. Raise awareness. Share this blog post and talk about this important issue with your friends and neighbors.
  2. Raise funds. In one Michigan district, Parchment Schools, an anonymous donor gave $7,200 to pay off school lunch debt. Other districts and individuals have held crowdfunding campaigns to help.
  3. Support state and federal legislation that bans lunch shaming and increases school funding for lunch programs.