Op-Ed: It’s time to end ‘lunch shaming’ at schools
By state Rep. Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon
Like many single parents, my mom did her best for my sister and me, but for a good amount of time we needed help in order to have enough food and to keep a roof over our heads.
State assistance and the generosity of others helped us stay afloat. Like many of my friends in our neighborhood, we relied on the free lunch program through most of elementary school. In the early grades, I never thought anything about it. We just grabbed our books, said goodbye to our mom, and took our lunch tickets with us without batting an eye.
Early in fifth grade, though, things changed. It started casually, a quick comment here or a snicker there. I wasn’t even sure they were talking about me. But when I realized these kids from another neighborhood were actually making fun of me because of my free lunch ticket, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t understand why that mattered.
One day though, I got picked on too hard. I remember it clearly, standing in line with my tray waiting to be served. One of my classmates pointed to me with his friend and said something about my free lunch that made both of them laugh at me (he actually had a reduced lunch ticket in his hand). I actually can’t recall his exact words, but the embarrassment was overwhelming. And I blamed the ticket for that. I left my tray on the counter, stepped out of line and walked to the garbage can where I threw out my ticket.
I didn’t use a free lunch ticket for the rest of fifth grade, and didn’t start eating lunch regularly again until a couple of grades later in a new school. I would scrimp together some food and found a way to deal with it, but I remember very well the sound of my stomach growling as the school day entered the afternoon hours. Hunger became a part of my elementary school experience.
Earlier this month, we hosted our Suburban Poverty discussion at Castle Shannon Library. We had a terrific panel and a lively crowd. One of the issues we focused on was food insecurity in our district and the free lunch program specifically. Both of these are important issues in our community.
It might be easy to miss the food pantries that are in and around our neighborhoods. Whether it’s SHIM in Bethel Park, St. Winifred’s in Mt. Lebanon or one of the others, seven local food pantries serve our district – many of us support them, and some of us need them.
Our schools share a similar story. In Baldwin-Whitehall, just over 38 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunch, an increase of nearly 2 percent over the previous year. In Keystone Oaks, the percentage of kids who qualify is almost at 50 percent, up over 30 percent from the year before. And in Mt. Lebanon, just over 12 percent of students qualify, an increase of nearly 13 percent from the previous year. The City of Pittsburgh includes everyone in their free lunch program.
Some school districts require kids to work for their food. Others slap wristbands on them to highlight the need for money. Some have actually written messages to the parents on the child’s arm. Indeed, a 2014 Department of Agriculture report found that nearly half of all school districts use some type of lunch shaming method to try to get parents to pay.
Now don’t get me wrong, schools need those who can afford to pay for the food to do so. But I do not believe that this issue should be taken up with the children – especially in elementary school. Accordingly I have joined with state Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, to propose a bill that would prohibit this type of lunch shaming in Pennsylvania. Our legislation would require that all communication regarding lunch debts be directed to parents rather than to the kids.
We have made strides over the decades since I was in school. In most instances, children who require free or reduced lunch are not given special tickets that make them stand out from their peers. While there is still work to be done, most schools have made an effort to address bullying in a systematic way.
But an overdue lunch bill must not mean an empty belly, and while emphasizing a work ethic is a positive, spending recess inside working off your food is, at the very least, ostracizing. Instead, we must adopt policies that fight to end stigma, and I think our new bill is a step in that direction.
I can assure you that it is difficult to learn when you are hungry.