Should Students Be Punished for Not Having Lunch Money?

Should Students Be Punished for Not Having Lunch Money?

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Is eating lunch at school a right that all students should be guaranteed, regardless of financial circumstance? Or should school lunch be made available only to those who can afford it? Do you think students should be punished if they cannot pay for lunch once? What if they cannot afford to pay for school lunches over multiple weeks?

In “First, the Tuna Fish ‘Badge of Shame.’ Next, Banned From the Prom?” Tracey Tully and Nate Schweber document the evolving lunch policy in Cherry Hill, N.J., that restricts students who owe more than $20 to a tuna sandwich lunch. However, in September the lunch policy expanded:

But the policy now includes another penalty: It allows principals to block students who owe more than $75 from buying yearbooks or prom tickets, and from participating in nonacademic field trips and some extracurricular activities.

The school district’s latest move has drawn the scorn of a leading Democratic candidate for president.

“This is cruel and punitive,” Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote on Twitter about the controversy.

“Excluding them and punishing them — what are you teaching them?” asked Sunny Reed, 35, whose son attends kindergarten in Cherry Hill. “It’s beyond ridiculous. It’s punishing children for being poor.”

Holding children publicly accountable for unpaid lunch bills is hardly unusual. A 2014 report from the United States Department of Agriculture found that nearly half of all school districts used some form of shaming to compel parents to pay bills.

Some schools have decided to focus on parents and caregivers, rather than the children, when lunch bills mount:

Last year, in an effort to prevent shaming, the Agriculture Department issued guidelines that encouraged districts to “focus on the adult(s) responsible for providing funds for meal purchases, rather than focusing debt collection efforts on the child.”

Cherry Hill’s debate erupted not long after a similar dust up in suburban Pennsylvania. In July, a regional school district about 30 miles southwest of Scranton, Pa., sent letters home warning parents that if they did not repay overdue lunch bills, they could lose their children to foster care, according to The Associated Press.

In 2017, New York City joined Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas in offering all students free school lunch. Some individuals have even offered to pay off debts that are owed by students; however, the Cherry Hill School District’s superintendent, Joseph Meloche, said he did not think this was the right solution.

“Simply erasing the debt does not help those who need support and compassion and meals through the free and reduced meal programs,” Dr. Meloche said in a statement. “Simply erasing the debt does not address the many families with financial means who have just chosen not to pay what is owed.”

Missy Lang, president of the parent teacher association at Cherry Hill High School West, one of the district’s two comprehensive high schools, said she was confident the policy would be applied sparingly, if ever.

“I don’t think it’s malicious, and I don’t think that they’re trying to shame them,” Ms. Lang said. “We are a great community, and we take care of our people.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do you think students should be punished for not being able to afford school lunch? What is your reaction to the “tuna sandwich” policy in the Cherry Hill School District? What about restricting students’ ability to participate in extracurricular activities?

  • What do you think it feels like to be punished for not having lunch money? How do you think it might make students feel about school and, in particular, lunchtime?

  • Who do you think is responsible for paying for a student’s lunch? In the article, some make the case that the student is responsible, while others think it is the responsibility of the parent, school or government. What do you think? If a student is unable to pay for lunch, do you think someone should be held accountable?

  • Should students have to pay for school lunch or should it be free? What do you think about school districts, like those in New York and Illinois, that have made school lunch free for everyone?

  • Cherry Hill’s district superintendent expressed concern that simply forgiving lunch debt would send the wrong message to families “with financial means who have just chosen not to pay what is owed.” How big of a concern is this to you? Should we worry that wealthier families might get a free lunch and exploit the system? Or is the larger goal of making sure all students have access to a healthy meal, without shame, more important?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.