Kids With No Lunch Money Are Being Made To Mop School Floors (Seriously)

A senator who grew up poor challenges the harsh punishments schools dole out at mealtime

When you’re a fourth-grader, you are completely reliant on your parents for money—which makes it difficult when they don’t give you enough to cover the $2.68 hot lunch at school. What happens next varies by state, but outstanding balances on cafeteria accounts frequently result in some kind of public callout. In some cases, kids are forced to clean cafeteria tables to work off their lunch debt. One school in Alabama makes a habit of branding students with an “I need lunch money” stamp on their arms. And other times, children are denied lunch altogether.

This may sound like a new and particularly cruel punishment, but lunch shaming has been used in schools for decades. New Mexico Senator Michael Padilla knows the humiliation all too well; he used to trade his mopping skills with cafeteria workers to pay off his parents’ balance. He watched other kids stand in line for hot lunch, while he waited for a measly piece of bread. Padilla has put this experience behind him, but now he wants to eradicate this stigma from his entire state. Last week, he passed a new bill that explicitly outlaws lunch shaming in New Mexico public schools, instructing administrations to work directly with parents, leaving kids out of the equation. The bill is the first of its kind—an important step toward reducing the stigma kids face around money.

In the United States, about 31 million children a receive free or reduced-price lunch—and though more than that are eligible, many choose not to take advantage. Only 40 percent of eligible high school students take part in New York City public schools’ free and reduced lunch program, and Oregon estimates only 66 percent participation statewide. The main reason is the stigma attached to receiving free lunch: students have to stand in a separate line, or worse, be denied lunch altogether, signaling that their family can’t afford to pay the $2.68 that other kids pay. Many children, even those whose families qualify for reduced-price lunch, would rather skip the meal entirely than admit their low-income status to their friends.

Psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel explains that being singled out for difference creates a cycle of “toxic shame.” Kids are so sensitive to being different, she says, that “if lunch is associated with the shame of being different, they will avoid the difference” at all costs. High school English teacher Katherine West* sees this stigma play out on a daily basis in Boston’s public schools. When children can’t afford what their friends can, “the kids end up having to pretend they don’t want it,” West says. But in schools where almost every single kid qualified for a free or reduced lunch, Smith noticed “there was no stigma around it whatsoever.”

Unfortunately, for many of the children who experience lunch shaming, the stigma never leaves them. As Hendel notes, “the consequences of being shamed as children can be exacerbated in adulthood.” Lunch shaming, she explains, can manifest in one of two ways: Children either turn it on themselves and experience chronic fear, depression, and low self-esteem, or they become bullies. Both methods of coping—making themselves smaller or developing a “protective aggression”—are problematic. “The younger you are, the more prone you are to mental health problems,” Hendel says. In fact, kids may feel shame associated with money forever: “The brain makes associations. If a kid was made to feel bad for being poor, there's a good chance that they'll forever feel bad about being poor.”

Lunch shaming creates a significant psychological hurdle that many kids never recover from, a steep price to pay for a meal that costs less than a Starbucks coffee. New Mexico’s legislation sets an important precedent for the rest of the United States—one that takes the burden of financial stigma off children. Hopefully, it is only a matter of time before states across the country follow suit.

*Name has been changed.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
via Gage Skidmore

The common stereotypes about liberals and conservatives are that liberals are bleeding hearts and conservatives are cold-hearted.

It makes sense, conservatives want limited government and to cut social programs that help the more vulnerable members of society. Whereas liberals don't mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to help the unfortunate.

A recent study out of Belgium scientifically supports the notion that people who scored lower on emotional ability tests tend to have right-wing and racist views.

Keep Reading Show less