Shaming Children

Schools resort to humiliating pupils to get lunch bills paid

Posted Jul 25, 2017

A seventh grader in a Pennsylvania had her lunch tray tossed into the garbage because her family had an unpaid food bill from the previous year.

A child in Alabama had her arm stamped with “I Need Lunch Money.”

One cafeteria worker couldn’t abide by her school’s policy of stigmatizing children so she quit because she had been forced to take away a child’s lunch.  

This are only a few of the many instances across that country where humiliation, embarrassment, stigmatizing and shaming children is used by schools to collect unpaid lunch bills.

There is even a term for it: “lunch shaming.”

 The situation is so troubling that the Department of Agriculture has asked schools to rethink the policy. While it won’t outlaw the shaming, it is encouraging schools to rethink ways that delinquent parents will payup.

Meanwhile, New Mexico has taken steps to put a stop to lunch shaming and other states are taking a hard look at the policy.

But why should children pay for meals at school? Much research shows that an inadequate diet takes a heavy toll on children’s ability to learn. You need books to learn, so schools provide texts for all children. In the same way, meals need to be given to all children regardless of economic status.

Does shaming, in fact, get parents to pay up? Seventy-five per cent of all school districts have some lunch debt. While shaming produces some results, the psychological toll it takes on students is of real concern. Adults learn how to deal with embarrassment. For children, it is more difficult to deal with. And at it most extreme, as Emile Durkheim, the founder of sociology pointed out nearly a century ago, feeling ashamed can cause suicidal behavior.

Another concern gets to a basic ethical concern: is it right to use a person in order to achieve an extrinsic goal? A child is stigmatized in order to get a parent to pay the debt that the child didn’t assume. This is a violation of the basic principles in ethics: never use a person as a means only. But that is exactly what lunch shaming is—schools treating children as a means while they should be educating them.

The policy is awful on so many levels it is a wonder it has taken this long for action to be taken to bring it to an end.