Meal of Shame

by on May 21, 2019

Warwick Public Schools, a school district in Rhode Island recently changed its policy related to unpaid meal charges. Until last week, a student whose family had not paid the “lunch debt” was singled out in the cafeteria line and, instead of the hot meal served other students, was given a cold nut-butter and jelly sandwich. This policy of serving a “meal of shame” to the students with delinquent accounts drew national attention, and outraged Warwick parents drove the district to now offer the same choices to all students, regardless of their ability to pay.

In another national news story, Bonnie Kimball, a cafeteria worker in Canaan, New Hampshire, took pity on a high school student with a delinquent account and broke policy by serving him lunch anyway, advising him to tell his parent to pay off the debt as soon as possible. “I went and took care of another family,” she explained. Her actions were observed by her manager and, for her “act of leniency,” she was fired.

These stories are remarkable examples of how fiscally-oriented school meal policies, however unintentionally, can publicly humiliate and punish low-income children and the people who try to help them. Federal policy allows each school district to address school meal delinquency in its own way, and more recently developed guidelines to encourage (but do not require) debt-collection policy with discretion to avoid such public shaming.

What’s also remarkable is how, early on, San Francisco Unified School District specifically targeted the shaming factor of such policies and adopted its “Feed Every Hungry Child” policy in 2009. When a SFUSD student comes through the lunch line, his or her account status is privately checked by “point of sale” software. The student gets the meal, and all District account-settling with the family is done privately.

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs are funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service and are administered in California by the Department of Education. State law requires school districts to offer free meals to students whose families earn less than 120% of the federal poverty level, and to offer a reduce-price meal with a small co-payment to students from families who earn between 120% and 185% of the federal poverty level. These are stringent thresholds: in 2019 terms, a family of four must earn less than $25,400 to qualify for free meals or less than $46,435 for reduced-price meals. According to a recent study by GoBankingRates, a family of four needs an income of at least $118,400 to be considered “middle class” in San Francisco. For further context, a household with two adults working full-time at minimum wage earns $62,400 per year – well above the cutoff for free or reduced-price meals.

There are many families in San Francisco whose household incomes are below “middle class” but do not qualify for the free/reduced-price meals, and who struggle to afford the daily cost of $3.00 for lunch and $1.50 for breakfast. Some of these families get relief if they attend one of the 54 elementary, middle and high schools, or any of the early education centers, where SFUSD offers free meals to all students, regardless of family income. SFUSD does this by leveraging a federal policy that allows districts to provide free meals at schools where 40% or more of its students qualify for means-tested social programs. This policy eliminates the “food for poor kids” stigma. In the cafeteria line, everyone is treated as an equal.

But what about students who attend one of the roughly half of the schools not offering free meals for all students? For starters, SFUSD waives the copay for reduced-price meals, easing the burden on some families. The remaining families who do not meet the strict guidelines are expected to pay for meals and can set up an online account or send cash with their students. When families fall behind on their payments, SFUSD attempts to collect the debt with mailed notices and phone calls. After several attempts to collect, the debt is considered “uncollectable,” and is written off by the District as a loss. This amounted to $268,557 for the 2017/2018 school year and comes directly from the District’s general fund contribution for Student Nutrition Services, reducing funds available to improve school meals.

By adopting the “No Child Hungry” policy, SFUSD has shown its understanding 1) that hungry children cannot learn, and 2) children must not be shamed or put in the middle of a financial transaction meant for adults.

Stories like the ones from Rhode Island and New Hampshire generate interest from the public to contribute towards students’ meal debt. Readers who wish to make a contribution to ease the unpaid meal charges for SFUSD families can visit the Future of Dining website.

Libby Albert has over 20 years experience in the field of child nutrition, including 7 years at the United States Department of Agriculture and one year as the Director of Student Nutrition Services for SFUSD. She and her husband raised two children who attended SFUSD schools. She can be reached at

Filed under: Soda Tax/Food Politics

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