Every day, millions of students receive meals at schools across the United States.
The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted program that operates in public and non-profit private schools. It provides meals to around 30 million children nationwide.
About 20 million of the students meet requirements for a free lunch, or light meal, during the school day. About two million others qualify for a reduced price. They pay 40 cents a day for lunch.
The nearly eight million remaining students are charged the full price for their meals. But some of their parents may struggle to pay these costs.
Over the years, U.S. schools have tried different methods to collect unpaid lunch money. But not all of these methods are popular.
What happened in Rhode Island?
Rhode Island school officials learned recently that denying children a hot meal led to strong criticism on social media. Some parents had not paid lunch money for their children. So the school district had planned to serve the children cold sandwiches.
But after receiving hundreds of comments on Facebook and angry telephone calls, the school district last week canceled the plan.
Catherine Bonang is with Warwick Public Schools, the district receiving the criticism. She told The Associated Press that the bad reaction to the sandwich plan was “global.”
Such plans are not new, but they are increasingly facing public criticism. If a child is seen eating a cold meal, for example, it becomes clear who owes money, and this can cause feelings of guilt or shame. The movement against “lunch shaming” is gaining popularity around the country.
In the past, Warwick students who owed lunch money were served cheese sandwiches that are not on the normal menu. School district officials wanted to make this less noticeable by changing to a kind of sandwich that is offered to everyone, Bonang explained.
But criticism pushed officials to say all students would get the choice of a hot meal. A policy of not letting older students with unpaid fees take part in school trips, dances or other activities was also recently stopped, the district said.
How common is the shaming?
It is difficult to know how common lunch shaming is among the nation’s thousands of schools. But in 2011, most school districts had unpaid meal fees. That information comes from a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which supervises the federal school lunch program. Among those districts, schools often served alternative meals, such as sandwiches.
Districts also reported taking other actions to collect money, such as not giving students their class marks.
Are there rules against shaming?
New Mexico passed a law against such actions in 2017. Several other states have followed its example. They include California, Iowa and Oregon.
Their laws generally do not permit actions like making students do work around the school. Yet serving alternative meals is not always banned. Supporters of the law say students should never go hungry at school or be shamed with food.
Last month, U.S. lawmakers proposed “anti-lunch shaming” bills to help protect children with unpaid fees. The USDA does not support actions that identify such students, but gives school districts permission to set their own policies.
Are the meals a form of shaming?
A child can feel shame even if other children do not know why they are getting a cold sandwich, said Jennifer Ramo. She is with an organization called New Mexico Appleseed. It works on improving the lives of poor people.
After forgetting to pay lunch money for one week, one parent said her young son was given a sunflower butter sandwich last year. The mother said her heart broke when she picked him up at school and he asked why she had not paid.
She was also charged $2.50 for the sandwich, the same price as for a hot meal.
The woman lives in Cranston, Rhode Island, not far from Warwick.
Cranston’s school district said it no longer serves alternative meals.
Who is affected?
Reasons for unpaid fees can also be different. Some families may struggle to pay basic living costs, even if they do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Others may feel shame in applying for such meals or not realize they qualify.
The School Nutrition Association represents lunch room operators and suppliers. It says providing free lunches for all students would end questions about charges for meal money.
Are unpaid fees a big problem?
The USDA report from a few years ago said lost money from unpaid meals represented a small part of a school food program’s total spending. But situations are different. The School Nutrition Association says unpaid meal fees are a common issue. It said debt is increasing in places that started anti-lunch shaming policies.
The debt is at about $90,000 in Cranston, Rhode Island. In January, officials there started using a debt collector.
Michael Crudale is with Cranston Public Schools. He says simply getting a letter from a collection agency can sometimes get families to pay. He said parents’ credit rating scores are not affected, but that letters are sent every 30 days until the school year ends. At that point, Crudale said the district decides to pay the cost and the debt is canceled.
I'm Jill Robbins. And I'm Alice Bryant.
Candice Choi wrote this story for the Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted her report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. We want to hear from you. How do you feel about schools serving different (or the same) foods to students with unpaid meal fees? Write to us in the Comments Section.
Words in This Story
qualify – v. to have the right to do, have, or be a part of something
(school) district – n. an area or region containing the schools that a school board is in charge of
sandwich – n. two pieces of bread with something between them
global – adj. relating to the whole world
menu – n. a list of the foods that may be ordered at a restaurant
fee – n. an amount of money that must be paid
alternative – adj. offering or expressing a choice
sunflower butter – n. a food paste made from sunflower seeds
apply – v. to ask formally for something, usually in writing