A slew of recent news stories are calling attention to the widespread problem of “lunch-shaming,” the practice of calling attention to, punishing, and stigmatizing students with unpaid school meal debt. Whether it is serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, prohibiting seniors from graduating, firing cafeteria workers for serving children in spite of their unpaid balances, or forcing children to wear stickers or perform chores, these punitive practices are dehumanizing and harmful. Unfortunately, they are all too common.

The National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs are critical supports that provide free or reduced-price meals to low-income students, helping them consistently access the healthy food they need to learn, grow and thrive.

While some 22 million students benefit from the School Lunch Program, 75 percent of school districts reported unpaid school lunch and median lunch debt has risen to $2,500 per school. Lawmakers at the state and federal level are working to prevent schools from using shaming practices to respond to this problem. This includes the reintroduction of the important Anti-Lunch Shaming Act in the 116th Congress. Individuals and organizations have also sought, admirably, to fill in the gaps by paying off students’ balances.

But lunch debt—and the shaming that results—is a systemic problem, and ad hoc acts of charity are not enough to fix it. Instead, we should be asking deeper questions:  why does unpaid school lunch debt exist in the first place, and how can make healthy food available to every student?

The prevalence of school lunch debt signals that our school meal programs need improvements so that they are available to all children in need. This includes reducing administrative barriers that keep eligible children from enrolling, such as burdensome application processes a s well as expanding the existing pool of students who are eligible for free meals by making it easier for schools to adopt the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which streamlines the ability of school districts with high poverty levels to provide free meals. The upcoming process of Child Nutrition Reauthorization is an important opportunity for Congress to protect and strengthen CEP. Congress must also protect low-income children’s access to SNAP and other assistance programs by which they receive direct certification for school meals.

Ultimately, the problem of lunch shaming requires a multi-layered approach. Not only should we prohibit schools from discriminating against and shaming students who cannot afford school meals, but ultimately, we must eradicate those affordability issues altogether. As Congress works to reauthorize Child Nutrition programs, it must protect and strengthen the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs so that school lunch debt—and the shaming accompanying it—become things of the past.   

For more resources on this and related topics, check out the First Focus Campaign for Children Proactive Kids Agenda and our comments on the proposed public charge rule.