Service of Humiliating, Harmful Strategies to Get Paid: Lunch Shaming

May 8th, 2017

Categories: Charity Begins at Home, Children, Food, School, Strategy, Waste



The headline alone of Bettina Elias Siegel’s article in The New York Times, “Shaming Children So Parents Will Pay the School Lunch Bill,” is enough to sink hearts and for readers to scream: “What are they thinking?” To embarrass a child in front of others for something they have done is horror enough but to do this over something over which the young one has no control is unthinkable. Adding injury to insult is that it involves an essential life-sustaining activity, eating, and it is fomented by school administrators who, of all people, should know better. Further, there’s a huge element of waste involved.

I wrote about school lunches four years ago in a different context: Service of Equality: Free School Breakfast, Lunch and iPads.” In that post I wanted NYC to pay for breakfast and lunch for the children whose parents couldn’t afford to buy them but thought that giving free iPads was a bit much when there are viable, far less expensive tablet options.

Recently Siegel wrote: “On the first day of seventh grade last fall, Caitlin Dolan lined up for lunch at her school in Canonsburg, Pa. But when the cashier discovered she had an unpaid food bill from last year, the tray of pizza, cucumber slices, an apple and chocolate milk was thrown in the trash.”

What’s the strategy here: It’s better to toss good food than give it to a hungry child? That’ll teach a parent who isn’t there who may not have the money to pay in the first place.



News in the rest of the article doesn’t get much better. Siegel further described “lunch shaming,” as the nasty approach is called. “The practice is widespread — a 2014 report from the Department of Agriculture found that nearly half of all districts used some form of shaming to compel parents to pay bills. (About 45 percent withheld the hot meal and gave a cold sandwich, while 3 percent denied food entirely.)” Instead of a real lunch some are given two pieces of bread with a thin slice of cheese.



Siegel described a cafeteria worker in Pa. who quit when forced to take away a child’s lunch. A child in Alabama went home with a stamp on her arm: “I need lunch money.”

There’s no free lunch and there’s the lunch bill to pay. What to do? Some qualify for a federal free meal program though others are afraid to apply because of their immigration status. Communities ask for “random acts of kindness” and organize fundraisers and GoFundMe pages. A Texas-based 4th grade mentor, Kenny Thompson, paid the bill when he saw the lunch lady refuse food to a child whose mother, he knew, was in the hospital. Next he founded “Feed the Future Forward,” and through fundraising events and donations hopes to wipe out over $50,000 in debt. To qualify for the refund money, however, Thompson makes schools sign a pledge that they won’t give children with unpaid bills a meal different from the other kids.

Lunch shaming is nothing new. Siegel quoted a mother whose son won’t eat peanut butter as the result of an incident two decades ago. How did it catch on and why do communities permit it? What gets into the minds of administrators who lose sight of their clients—children—when addressing a problem? How can parents permit such cruelty in a place they entrust their children?

Feed the Future Forward

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9 Responses to “Service of Humiliating, Harmful Strategies to Get Paid: Lunch Shaming”

  1. David Reich Said:

    What a shame. It all may not matter soon, if Trump cuts money for school lunches. He seems to be cutting everywhere so he has money to build his wall.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What a bleak picture. He’ll toss the responsibility back on the states and the communities and blame them for the fallout. It’s not only a wall he wants to build: His goal is to increase the riches of the one percent, just the people who don’t need more.

    I can’t get out of my mind images of small children who are starving. After seeing children–in photos and/or in person–with arms and legs the width of broom handles, how could a single soul think of cutting back food for children in this country?

  3. Lucrezia Said:

    It’s disgraceful that the so called “Land of Milk and Honey” aka the US ignores the fact that not only children, but entire families go to bed hungry every night — and that an embarrassing number of these have no bed but reside in shelters or on the sidewalk because of outrageous housing costs.

    Now instead of compassion for those in a jam, the electorate recently opted for an administration whose envisioned legislation will throw even more out on the street.

    The lunch shaming is only the tip of the iceberg. More horrors lurk. It’s too bad hard times will not be limited to those who asked for them.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    There’s a poignant commercial I hear every so often that addresses that situation: After listing the jobs of people you know and may not realize go to bed hungry, the copy ends with something like “and your mother’s friend with whom she plays cards every Wednesday is one of these people.”

    So the administrators who force cafeteria workers to be ogres [or no doubt lose their jobs] think that they will get money from people with, as you note, no money and no homes–there have been countless TV stories about children who live in cars and how they clean up for school in gas station bathrooms and worse. Administrators are happy to encourage fundraising to send the team or orchestra to play games or in concerts hither and yon but blink no eyes at kids who have nothing to eat or nowhere to live. Oh my. What happened to the philanthropy and generous spirit this country was known for? There have always been Scrooges but not as many.

  5. Nancy Farrell Said:

    I know a woman who went back to a high school reunion recently and ran into a childhood friend she hadn’t seen in years. My friend burst into tears and thanked her classmate for all of the after school snacks she’d shared while they were growing up. In those days we all went home for lunch so it’s hard to say who had enough to eat. My friend came from a big family and food was scarce and she was thankful that she had a friend who lived in a home where there were toasted cheese sandwiches for anyone who wanted them any time. It made me sad to see this woman in her 60s with tears in her eyes even after all these years as she remembered not having enough to eat. And she was so grateful for those sandwiches even now. Her classmate had no idea what my friend’s circumstances were. And I had no idea that she’d grown up under those conditions because she’s such a cheerful, grateful person. The story is a good reminder to be kind and generous and don’t judge because we have no idea what people have lived through or are dealing with.

  6. hb Said:

    This ghastly example of how cruel we have all become to each other was sufficiently disgusting that I almost vomited when I read it. In fact, I had to put the post down for a day before I could face even writing a comment about it.

    The fault is as much that of each and every one of us individually as it is that of those who shamed and condoned this shaming. Whether we will admit it or not, the truth is that in our mad scramble to grasp the much touted, but actually misperceived, benefits of materialism we have jettisoned the core value of all civilized societies, our mutual concern for our neighbors’ wellbeing.

    I then thought of how I, too, am responsible for this sorry mess we are in. I first voted in 1956 for Dwight D. Eisenhower, a good, thoughtful man with true vision and an understanding of history’s lessons. In the fifteen elections for President since then, there has been only one candidate, George H. W. Bush, whom I truly believed actually sought to make this a “kinder, gentler” world. (This idealism eventually cost him his reelection.) In every other instance, I grimaced and chose either to vote third party or to pick the lesser of two evils. However, did I ever try myself to make sure that we had decent candidates to vote for? No.

    That “nice guys finish last,” to quote Leo Durocher’s famous dictum, may be the American way, but it doesn’t have to be. If we all pitched in it wouldn’t be.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    What a story! Young ones who live in certain neighborhoods wouldn’t think that any of their classmates could be hungry. Even if your classmate was a grouch, which clearly she wasn’t, in a million years you wouldn’t have known that hunger was the cause.

    Words are like food in a way. Someone might have praised you or ripped you down when you were young. If you return to the scene of the conversation or something triggers your memory, the words will return as sharply as the memory of the generous woman, then child, who shared her snacks.

    I like your advice about being kind and try to follow it even though today it seems so out of step. A friend was going through financial difficulties and even then he said he’d be happy to pay higher taxes on purchases and gas if it would help others to live better. His approach is also out of step. The idea is to accumulate as much as possible and figure that a person without the means to pay for school lunch isn’t worth the bother–he/she should simply work harder.

    And then there are adults who are poor blind. They are so wealthy or just unobservant. The result is that even when right in front of them, they can’t fathom what it’s like and how it impacts people in their towns and cities.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I didn’t feel as physically sick as you when I saw the article but I felt as heartsick and puzzled that humans can be so cruel to one another.

    George HW Bush spoke of being kinder and gentler but President Carter has walked the walk. In a brief in the New Yorker’s “The Talk of the Town,” I read that President Carter is the only one in recent history who hasn’t cashed in on his position. In addition, he and Rosalynn make furniture, build houses for the poor. He may not have mouthed the words but he has acted kindly and gently.

    President Ford also lost an election because he thought more of the country than of himself. It may not fit the “kinder/gentler” title, but it reflects the idea of bowing to the greater good which is if not in the same pew, nevertheless in the same church, mosque or synagogue and sadly, so yesterday. It’s the part of yesterday that I miss.

  9. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Erica Martell sent me a clip through Facebook on this subject. I learned that in some communities, children without lunch money are forced to do janitorial work–clean up the tables their friends are eating at. I think you can access it via this link:

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