Effie Craven is the State Advocacy and Public Policy Director for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma
Imagine you are a child waiting in the school lunch line with your friends. You laugh and joke as you move through the line and get your trays, enjoying the break from class. But when you get to the cashier and scan your meal card, there is not enough money for your lunch. Your tray is taken from you – your hot meal is thrown away and replaced by a cheese sandwich as your classmates look on.
Practices like this, known as lunch shaming, are all too common in schools. And these practices are emotionally damaging to children, who have no control over their family’s financial situation and are often facing food insecurity at home as well. One in four Oklahoma children has inconsistent access to adequate, healthy food. The National School Breakfast and School Lunch Programs provide critical nutrition support to more than 425,000 Oklahoma children every year, but many students are either not eligible or not enrolled in the free and reduced price school meals programs.
In Oklahoma, lunch shaming has attracted public attention. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch program, requires all schools to have a written policy regarding unpaid meal debt, but practices still vary widely from district to district. According to Oklahoma Watch, students in the Choctaw-Nicoma Park School District used to have their hands stamped it they had a negative balance of more than $5. Middle school students in Tulsa Public Schools were given half a cheese sandwich and water if they owed more than $8.40, and students in some school districts have gone through the lunch line only to reach the cashier at the end and have their meal thrown away because they owed money.
These lunch-shaming practices hold children accountable for adult responsibilities, and that is unacceptable. Children are not responsible for their family’s debts, and should not bear the consequences of family financial shortcomings. As the public becomes increasingly concerned about children being stigmatized for school meal debt, state legislatures across the country and the United States Congress are responding. At the same time, school nutrition professionals and education advocates are raising concerns about growing unpaid meal debt and the burden that unpaid meals can place on already strapped school budgets.
The Oklahoma Food Banks and our partners across the state believe no child should be humiliated or denied a meal at school because of inability to pay. Thankfully, the Oklahoma Legislature has a chance to address the issue of lunch shaming this year. Senate Bill 1104, by Senator AJ Griffin, would require schools to provide a meal application in every school enrollment packet, file applications for eligible students, provide a meal to any student who requests one, and prohibit schools from throwing away a student’s meal due to an inability to pay. The bill also prohibits schools from publicly identifying or stigmatizing students who cannot pay, requiring students to do work in lieu of payment, not allowing students with meal debt to participate in school activities, or taking disciplinary action against students that results in denying or delaying a meal that is available to other students.
There is a solution to school meal debt, and it doesn’t require shaming children or denying them meals. Oklahoma can make significant progress towards addressing hunger and shoring up struggling school finances by increasing participation in federal nutrition programs across the board, like the National School Lunch Program. The School Lunch Program brought more than $172 million into Oklahoma schools during FY 2017, and the School Breakfast Program contributed an additional $61.3 million in federal reimbursements. Further, federal options available to schools like the Community Eligibility Provision can reduce administrative burdens and eliminate the need to collect individual school meal applications and track individual student payments.
Maximizing utilization of federal child nutrition programs is the most effective way to ensure Oklahoma’s children have regular, adequate meals. SB 1104 would ensure school meal programs are administered in a way that limits harm to children experiencing hunger and helps schools maximize the federal reimbursement they receive for providing meals through the National School Breakfast or National School Lunch Programs.
Oklahoma legislators must pass SB 1104 to address childhood hunger, preserve student dignity, and promote the National School Breakfast and School Lunch Programs. If we are going to invest in the future of Oklahoma, we should start by helping children thrive.
The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.