Q: Do you remember the first time you heard the term “school lunch debt?” What does that phrase tell you about the issues associated with the current model of charging kids based on their family’s eligibility for free, reduced-price, or full-price meals?
A: I learned about school lunch debt and “lunch shaming” long before the terms made national headlines. While researching this book, cafeteria workers told me how awful they felt taking away lunch trays and serving cold cheese sandwiches to children who didn’t have enough money in their lunch accounts.
School lunch debt affects the “near poor” who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunches the most. Even though school lunches are relatively cheap, paying $2-3 instead of 40 cents for a reduced-price lunch, can add up quickly for families whose finances are stretched thin. If they get behind on payments, schools will typically send multiple warnings, but policies vary widely from district to district. There have been some really terrible headlines about districts publicly shaming children and even threatening to turn them over to social services.
Children and families shouldn’t have to live in fear because of something as mundane as school lunch. The frontline kitchen and cafeteria workers who are expected to enforce these policies would be the first to agree—we need a universal free school lunch program that children and families actually want to participate in.