In bygone days schoolchildren would be seen at midday with their tin lunch pails or strolling home from neighbourhood schools to eat with their families. But suburban sprawl means that most of the 50 million children attending US public schools today live too far from school to safely walk home at lunchtime. Even if they lived nearer and could walk home, parents and caregivers must work long days. They cannot be home to cook.
School hours are stretching earlier and later, too, meaning that many students need to eat both breakfast and lunch on campus. In fact, with a shocking 12 million children living in food insecurity, the cafeteria is a critical tool in providing comfort and nutrition to poor families. Dinner might not be on the table when they get home.
Typically, each family is charged roughly $1.50 to $2.70 per meal per child, depending on their age and district. Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program can offer free meals to families making less than 130 per cent of the federal poverty level. Families making between 130 per cent and 185 per cent of the level still pay 30 cents to 40 cents per meal.
Pre-paid accounts for each child are charged as they are served or select their food. These accounts frequently run below zero, so school districts have to get creative in order to collect on the debts.
One school stamped the arms of child offenders with the notice “I need lunch money” to try to get their parents’ attention. Other schools give children sandwiches if they can’t pay, or go as far as to take hot lunches away from children with low accounts. That food is dumped in the trash. Some have even made indebted children perform janitorial labor to earn their food, or go without it altogether. Cafeteria staff have quit, or been fired, over being forced to deny lunch to children.
These measures are absurdly demeaning. Children are under compulsory education laws, and have no individual income. Being at school without lunch money is a situation beyond their control. For a child, it’s often difficult to pick the lesser evil: hunger or peer-witnessed shame.
Having your family’s financial status stamped on your skin for all to see is not just a little embarrassment; it’s also an obstacle both to healthy psycho-social development and formal education. Erik Erikson, a pioneer in child psychoanalysis, wrote in the mid 20th century about how feeling secure that one’s physical needs will be met is foundational to all the learning a child will do, and how feeling shame in that process can cause lifelong harm, particularly to self-esteem and self-control. He called it “rage turned against the self.”
The comfort and nourishment of food is not only a physical necessity in order to concentrate, behave and learn; suffering food insecurity also means living with long-term anxiety constantly disrupting the brain and the cognitive demands of being at school. This effect is compounded by knowing that all the other children can see the cold cheese sandwich on the tray, the stamp on the arm, or the table rags and mop buckets exchanged for food. Kids are sharp. They know a hierarchy when they see it, and their place in it.
Having children bear the consequences for a family’s poverty imposes upon them undeserved humiliation, which they are unequipped to process. Bright young minds, which we hoped to sharpen and ignite with education, are instead shutting down from hunger, guilt and rage, as they are forced to attend schools where their basic needs for food security and self-confidence go unmet.
This was recently taken to a new extreme when the Wyoming West Valley school district in north-eastern Pennsylvania sent 1,000 families letters warning that if they did not pay their lunch debts, child protective services would be involved. They had to issue an apology letter after local county child welfare officials vehemently stated their disapproval.
This mindset treats children as property owned by parents. A property owner is uniquely responsible to finance any costs associated with that property, such as taxes and upkeep. If one fails to pay back a loan associated with the property, it is repossessed. Threatening to remove a child from a family for accruing lunch debts tells children that they are property and parents that they are unfit owners.
If children are property, they are necessarily luxury goods. Parents are expected to be fully responsible for the costs of their children, while sending them to school or finding childcare that stashes them far away from the workplace for long hours each day. If parenting is only an option for the affluent, then children aren’t just luxury goods, they are also a disposable choice. You hear this argument from schools vilifying the parents who can’t pay a debt, the first-class businessman on an airplane complaining that no one should have children if they can’t keep them quiet, and the loud voices proclaiming that anyone who can’t afford a child should simply kill them in the womb. After all, that baby is their property.
But children are not property. They are dignified members of our society, in which we have all agreed to give a little from ourselves in order to make the whole better. Being poor is no disqualification from being a good parent. Good parents love and listen to their children, teach them how to be good, and show them what is good about the world. When considering how to treat children and families in any given policy, whether education, healthcare or welfare, the most important question is not “How much money do you need to deserve a family?” It is “What do families need in order to raise children with dignity?”
A particularly easy answer is to expand free lunch to all public school children. This would be better than wasting resources on bureaucratic means-testing, shaking down families over lunch debts, and carefully checking and charging each child’s account every day. Our schools obviously make poor debt collectors.
Children need full stomachs to participate in class, socialise with peers and learn what it means to be part of our society.
If all are eating freely together, the stigma of poverty disappears. Most importantly, funding school lunch emphasises that children matter. We don’t feed them out of the charity in our hearts; we feed them because they deserve to be treated not as property, but as people with dignity.
Carey Helmick hosts the Raising Helmicks podcast with her husband, Kyle
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