I did not learn everything I needed to know in Mrs. Waggoner’s kindergarten in Beeville, Texas, but I did learn valuable lessons. One important rule was that if one of us brought candy to class, we had to bring enough for everybody.

The lesson? No one gets left out.

The next year I attended the first grade at F.M.C., the public elementary school in town. The school was about seven miles from N.A.S. Chase Field, the Navy base where we lived in the base trailer park.

In the late 1960s, Beeville wasn’t much. Without the Navy base nearby, it would have been even less. At the time, my dad was halfway through his career in the U.S. Navy. No one in my first-grade class was from a wealthy family. Wealthy families in Beeville sent their elementary kids to a small private school.

Most students at F.M.C. were members of lower-middle-class families. I did not understand economics, socioeconomic status, or poverty when I was in the first-grade, but I think some of my classmates did. Well, they did not grasp fiscal policy. They simply had the practical, lived experience of family poverty.

For example, my friend John wore the same clothing every day. He told me it was his favorite shirt and, of course, I believed him. We were boys in the first grade, so a favorite shirt made sense. I was even jealous because I had a shirt I wanted to wear every day, but my mom would not allow it.

After standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, we paid for our lunches with coins from our parents. While our homeroom teacher took roll, we put our lunch money into a little basket that was passed around the room. After the basket made it back to her desk, she sent the “headcount” and lunch money to the cafeteria.

John sat two desks in front of me in class, but I never saw him pay for his lunch. He sat beside me nearly every day in the cafeteria as we scarfed down our first-grade feasts – we ate the same food. Sloppy Joe’s were our favorite. John did not pay, but still, he ate.

The lesson: Impoverished or not, all children need nutritious meals.

To my knowledge, John never missed lunchtime in the cafeteria. He was never given a cheese sandwich. Every day, he ate the same foods I ate. No cafeteria lady ever shamed John. As far as I know, the Texas child welfare agency was never called by the administration of F.M.C. Elementary School to persuade John’s parents to pay what they could not afford to pay – or risk John’s placement into foster care.

I don’t know how it worked then. Maybe schools had more money. Maybe a good-hearted donor was covering the costs of John’s lunches. However it happened, John was never shamed in the lunch line. It was a different place and a different time.

Oh, did you catch my phrase, “risk John’s placement into foster care“?

The Ultimate Lunch Shaming Technique

Threatening parents with foster care of their child to correct a school lunch debt must set the record for the most despicable form of lunch shaming.

Lunch shaming happens when a school treats children differently if they do not have money for school lunches.

Schools around the country have practiced a variety of lunch shaming techniques. One school marked children with ink stamps. Some schools provide a cheese sandwich or a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich instead of a hot meal. (In Cranston, Rhode Island, a child was given a sandwich AND charged the same price as a hot meal.) There are examples of cafeteria personnel embarrassing a child in front of friends by taking a meal back and tossing it in the trash after noticing a student’s lunch debt.

But threatening that children will be placed in foster care because of lunchroom debt? This is a new low, and it happened earlier this month in the Wyoming Valley West School District in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

About 40 parents received a letter from the school administration, which read in part:

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” the 200-word letter read. “This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

According to a 7/19/19 Washington Post article by Reis Thebault, School districts to parents: pay your lunch debt or your kids might wind up in foster care,

“On Thursday, Pedri (County Manager) and Joanne Van Saun, director of the county’s Children and Youth Services agency, sent the (school) district a letter of their own ordering school officials to “immediately cease and desist” advising families that failure to pay lunch bills could land their children in foster care.

“The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is utilized when a family has been struck by tragedy,” they wrote. “The Luzerne County Children and Youth Foster Care System is NOT utilized to scare families into paying school lunch bills.”

The average unpaid lunch bill among the 40 children? $22 per student. If an average school lunch costs $3.50, the average parent who received a letter was behind on about 7 meals.

Pennsylvania Law Prohibits Lunch Shaming of a Child

In 2017 Pennsylvania passed a state law prohibiting the practice of lunch shaming. The law requires that all students receive meals and that children cannot be stigmatized in any way. Any communication about a child’s lunch account must happen between the school and the parents.

This seems like a reasonable law because an important role of all adults is to care for children. Healthy food is basic. Caring for children is what adults do. This is how our species survives another generation. How well we care for all our children determines whether humankind flourishes.

Refusing to give food to a hungry child, embarrassing or belittling children – these are the behaviors of an adult bully. While the letter was within the bounds of the state’s 2017 law, I doubt any member of the Pennsylvania legislature predicted a school administrator would threaten parents with foster care. How can one predict that?

But, enough about Pennsylvania. We live in Louisiana.

Louisiana Allows Lunch Shaming

Worse than in Pennsylvania, lunch shaming is legal in Louisiana. School officials may withhold hot meals, substitute snacks for hot lunches, stamp kids’ wrists, and write names on the board for other students to see. It is even legal – wrong, but legal – in Louisiana for a school system to threaten foster care.

[Let me add, while Louisiana does permit lunch shaming, I am not aware of any school system which has publicly endorsed the practice.]

Lunch shaming is legal in Louisiana in spite of efforts by some of our legislators to end it. In 2018, Louisiana’s Senate Education Committee voted 4-2 against a bill that would prohibit Louisiana public schools from shaming students because they have unpaid lunch debts.

[Isn’t a vote against a prohibition a bit like a double negative? Is it not a vote for the opposite? Specifically, is a Senate Committee vote against the banning of lunch shaming in Louisiana not also a vote FOR lunch shaming?]

Looking out for Louisiana’s children, in 2018 Rep. Patricia Smith sponsored legislation that would have prohibited schools from denying a child a meal and from publicly identifying students with debt. It would have prohibited schools from requiring children to do chores to pay for their meals. It would have prevented Louisiana’s school personnel from withholding school privileges from children. Rep. Smith’s bill would have prevented school personnel from scolding children with lunch debts.

But again, the Senate Education Committee voted against the bill which would have prohibited lunch shaming in Louisiana. Still, there is hope. Perhaps to save face, the Louisiana Senate quickly passed Senate Resolution 154 which “requests the state Department of Education to create a committee to study and develop mechanisms and processes whereby every student is served a meal at school, regardless of ability to pay.” Notice, it’s a request and not a requirement.

Today, more than a year after S.R. 154 passed, using the public search engine on the LouisianaBelieves.com website, I get no results when searching for “S.R. 154”, “lunch shaming”, “served a meal at school”, or any other search string I imagine might be associated with the S.R. 154 committee.

I have sent a public records request to the Louisiana Department of Education and Representative Patricia Smith seeking the minutes of the S.R. 154-related committee meetings. I asked whether the Department of Education committee has completed its work, and (if the work is done) how to access the committee’s final report.

Most adults agree that stigmatizing a child for her family’s economic situation is wrong. Until the Louisiana Legislature passes legislation which prohibits lunch shaming, children are ready targets for school administrators and cafeteria personnel seeking payment for school lunch debt.

Shaming Children is Wrong

Finally, it is essential to distinguish between shaming children and communicating with parents. Any behavior which humiliates a child is wrong. Communicating with parents about lunch debts is responsible. (Unless it includes coercive threats about foster care!)

Legislation prohibiting lunch shaming of children does not grant an automatic pass for the parents. It seems reasonable that Louisiana’s legislature might need two bills to ensure we care well for children and fund school systems sufficiently. The first bill should simply prohibit school lunch shaming. The second could address the findings of the committee which Louisiana’s Department of Education created in response to Senate Resolution 154 of 2018.

You are still wondering about my first-grade friend, John. My family moved from Beeville to Okinawa just as I started the second grade. I know nothing of John’s life after the first-grade, but I do know he and I both enjoyed the same nutritious meals and laughed together without shame in the cafeteria of F.M.C.

I will let you know what I hear about the work of the Department of Education S.R. 154 committee. And my first-grade friend’s name? It was not John, but even 50 years later I am compelled to protect the innocent.

Rick Wheat
Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services

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