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Nearly One Fourth of American Children Live in Poverty, So Why Are Schools Trashing Their Lunches?

When many children are food insecure, for any school to intentionally inflict hunger is indefensible.

What would be the instinct of any normal adult faced with a group of hungry children? To feed them, of course. Especially adults entrusted with the care and well-being of children, by virtue of their employment in a public school. That's why what happened in Utah last week is inexplicable. A cafeteria nutrition manager (a stunning oxymoron), fed up with students' overdue balances on lunch accounts, went to Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City and "seized and trashed" the lunches of about 30 students.

According to Jason Olsen, a Salt Lake City District spokesman, the child-nutrition department realized some students' families had outstanding balances on Monday, but the department's manager wasn't able to notify the school until after lunch had been served on Tuesday. So the department did what any humane, understanding person would do: They snatched the meals from the children and threw them in the trash.

The thought of withholding food from a child and then throwing that food in the trash is sickening. Not surprisingly, the move sparked community outrage, with parents expressing anger and two state Senators paying a visit to the school.

The Utah case went viral on social media, generated a write-in campaign, was covered on NBC Nightly News, and as the ultimate sign of outrage, earned an online petition. Uintah Elementary is also 89 percent white, and has a student body with 13 percent low-income students.

No child should ever be forced to go hungry, or humiliated in front of their peers. The irony is that it took a white, affluent school to make this a national story. Taking school meals away from kids is unnatural. It's degrading.

And this is not the first time it has happened.

In Texas, a 12-year-old on a reduced meal plan had his breakfast confiscated and thrown away because his meal account was overdrawn by 30 cents. In Willingboro, New Jersey, the school board, apparently inspired by Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi," decided to discontinue "humanitarian" lunches for students unable to pay. Overdue account? No money? "No lunch for you!"

The Superintendent explained the new policy is the district's response to parents failing to apply for the free and reduced meal program subsidized by the state. Yes, let that marinate. A superintendent of schools is willing to let low-income students go hungry to punish their parents for failing to complete paperwork. In a state where poverty now stands at its highest level in 52 years.

What could possess any adult to even consider this an appropriate action? And again, I come back to the institution inflicting this harm: schools. This is a place where kids come to learn. How can they do that if they're hungry?

School districts insist this measure is to hold parents accountable. But it punishes students, not parents. Not too many first-graders have control over their parents' checkbooks. Instead of finding ways to shame and stigmatize children, the adults that implement these policies should put attention and energy toward finding ways to make sure children can get affordable or free meals. Educate parents on financial assistance available to them. Find effective methods to communicate to a child's family that the lunch account has gone dry. Most delinquent accounts are likely caused by an oversight, not abuse.

In Utah, the uproar resulted in an apology, as well as the cafeteria manager and her supervisor being placed on paid leave. That's what happens when a story gains traction—the issue gets aggressively confronted. But how many cases go unreported? How many parents—especially parents of color, immigrants, and parents with low incomes—lack the time, energy, and know-how to organize and execute such a campaign?

A nationwide poll of public school teachers and principals found 73 percent of teachers say their students regularly come to school hungry because there isn't enough food at home, 87 percent of principals report seeing hungry kids in their schools at least once a week, and half of teachers surveyed consider hungry children in their classroom "a serious issue."

When many children are food insecure, when many children go hungry during school breaks and on snow days, when many children count on a school lunch or breakfast as their only nutritious meal all day, for any school official to intentionally inflict hunger on a child is unconscionable and indefensible. Every time, I'm sure nothing like this could ever happen again—until the next time.

Lunch service station image via Shutterstock

A version of this post originally appeared at Crooks and Liars.

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