One Senator Fights Back Against Schools That Shame Poor Students

This harsh punishment tactic affects kids’ relationships with money for the rest of their lives

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.

via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

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The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

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In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

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The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

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via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

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