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Can schools spare kids ‘lunch shaming’ while still paying the bills?

Public school districts have made headlines in recent months for putting children in the middle when their parents owe money for their school lunches. The controversial practice, known as “lunch shaming,” has sparked national outrage and prompted a conversation about how these debts are handled. John Yang reports and talks to Crystal FitzSimons of the Food Research & Action Center.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With the new school year fast approaching, John Yang is back to report on a controversial practice some school districts use that puts children in the middle when schools go after money owed by their parents.

    It's part of our weekly education series, Making the Grade.

  • John Yang:

    Every school day, millions of children across the county sit down to lunch in their cafeterias, whether it includes a scoop of tater tots or a tray of fruits and vegetables.

    About 20 million students, those whose household income is below 185 percent of the poverty line, are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, subsidized by the federal government.

    But when other students show up without enough money to pay for lunch, school districts end up picking up the tab. Some 75 percent of school districts reported carrying meal debt at the end of the 2017 school year, some running as high as $865,000.

    Some schools pressure students in order to compel their parents to settle up, a practice known as school lunch shaming. A federal report said that, in 2014, nearly half of all school districts had policies that singled out students for unpaid school lunch balances.

    In May, the Warwick, Rhode Island, Public School District announced on its Facebook page that any student with an unpaid balance would be served a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich, instead of the school's regular hot lunch. That sparked national outrage and an outpouring of donations to help cover the district's $78,000 school lunch debt, including $40,000 from the CBS show "The Talk."

  • Woman:

    And no kid should ever have to feel shame.

  • John Yang:

    And nearly $50,000 from the founder and CEO of the Chobani yogurt company.

  • Man:

    We need everywhere, everywhere around the country to eliminate this for all forever.

  • John Yang:

    And earlier this month, the Wyoming Valley West School District in Northeastern Pennsylvania sent letters to about 40 families telling them their children could be sent to foster care if they didn't pay up.

    That Pennsylvania school board has apologized for the tone of the letter and accepted a local businessman's donation to wipe out the $22,000 debt. The school board president had initially rejected the offer, saying it was the parents' responsibility.

    Crystal FitzSimons is director of school and out-of-school-time programs at the Food and Research Action Center, which is an advocacy group that targets hunger and undernutrition.

    Crystal, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Crystal Fitzsimons:

    Thanks for having me.

  • John Yang:

    Give us some idea.

    We heard a couple of the reactions from school districts in that piece. But give us some idea of the range of policies that school districts have around the country to deal with school lunch debt.

  • Crystal Fitzsimons:


    So, there are a group of kids who get free school meals. They get free breakfast and lunch. But there's other kids who don't qualify for free school meals. And so school districts really do have to figure out how to cover those costs.

    So they set fees. Kids who are eligible for reduced price can be charged 30 cents for breakfast, 40 cents for lunch. The other kids are charged the majority of the cost of the meal.

    And when families don't pay those school meal fees, then the school district has to figure out how to come up with that money, because, otherwise, it is actually charged to the school district's general account. So it is a real issue for schools.

  • John Yang:

    And what do they do? What do other schools — what is sort of the range of things that schools do to deal with that debt, to get — try to get — collect the debt?

  • Crystal Fitzsimons:


    So, I would say that the vast majority of schools are not school lunch shaming. There are schools that do practices around, you know, stamping or stickering, saying, I owe school lunch money. There are school districts where they say, we're not going to provide any meals to kids who have school meal debt.

    And so when the child goes through the cafeteria line at the end of the line, because they have debt or they don't have cash to pay for the meal, they will take the lunch away and throw it in the trash, because the food cannot be reserved.

    In fact, the first time I ever really heard about unpaid school meal debt at FRAC was when we had a grandparent who called, and her granddaughter had just started kindergarten in Michigan, and they had taken her lunch away because the school district had not processed her school meal application yet.

    So there are lots of kids who fall through the cracks within the school nutrition program, and we rally think that it's important for schools — if a family is falling behind in unpaid school meal debt, that it's really important for schools to take a look at whether or not the family is actually eligible for free school meals.

  • John Yang:

    And your group, the Food and Research Center, FRAC, as you call it, is backing legislation in Congress right now that would address this issue.

    What would the legislation do?

  • Crystal Fitzsimons:


    So we're very excited about a bill called No Shame At School. And it was introduced by Representative Omar and Senator Smith. And that would actually do a number of things to improve the situation.

    First, it would make sure that there was no shaming or embarrassing activities happening in the school. And, second, we think that all the communications around school meal debt should actually go to the parents or the guardian, as opposed to the child.

    We think the cafeteria really should be a positive experience for all kids. And then for the kids who are eligible, but somehow were missed in being certified for free meals, if — the school district has to reach out and let families know that they can apply. And if the child becomes eligible, the bills would actually provide retroactive reimbursement for school lunch and breakfast.

    And that way, the schools would be made whole. The kids would no longer have that debt. And then kids who need school meals would actually be able to tap into them.

  • John Yang:

    But one thing the legislation won't do, as I understand it, is that it won't address alternative meals, the schools — school districts, that if there isn't enough, they don't have enough money to pay for that lunch that day, give them an alternative meal, not the regular hot meal.

    Why is that not in the legislation?

  • Crystal Fitzsimons:

    Well, so because the federal government doesn't pay for all the meals served in school, which I think this whole issue does shine a light on the fact that that is a problem, that we do want kids to be in classrooms, healthy and well-nourished, and that providing free meals to all kids is actually a wonderful way the make sure that happens — but the federal government doesn't pay the cost of the meals for the reduced price or the paid.

    So they really can't tell schools that they have to provide a meal to those children. And so, you know, if a school district that is really struggling with debt, I would say that it's probably better to make sure that the child has some food, and I would also say that there are ways to provide an alternative meal that are less embarrassing.

    You know, if the cheese sandwich or the sun butter sandwich is part of the regular school lunch and any child can take it, then it's not embarrassing for a child to have it.

    But when it's done in a way that is public, that is humiliating, we really need to make sure that that's not happening in school cafeterias across the country.

  • John Yang:

    Crystal FitzSimons of the Food and Research Action Center, thank you very much.

  • Crystal Fitzsimons:

    Well, thank you for having me.

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