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Lunch Money

May 21, 2017

School lunch display at Oregon State University, Author Stephanie Grutzmacher, Source Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)

The National Center for Educational Statistics reported in 2013 that 22% of children were bullied during the school year [1][2].

Whether or not we lost our lunch money to a bully as children, most of us are aware of the negative and long-term impact bullying can have on victims [3].  Bullying has actually been a factor in school shootings [4].

For that reason, it is shocking to learn schools, themselves, make it a practice to bully children over lunch money.

Lunch Shaming

The Department of Agriculture in 2016 determined that nearly half of all school districts use a form of shaming to induce parents to pay their children’s lunch bill [5A].

Approximately 45% of such school districts withhold a hot meal from the child (replacing it with a cold sandwich or, in a few cases, denying food entirely).  Many discard the hot food.

Some not only call children out publicly for overdue food bills, but use stamps or felt tip markers to label these children.  The experience can be traumatic.

Unpaid Meal Debt

In a review of nearly 1000 school lunch programs, the School Nutrition Association in 2016 found that 71% had unpaid meal debt [6A].  In urban areas, this can run into millions.

Not every family qualifies for the federal free meal program.  Some that might qualify do not apply, either because of language difficulties or fear of deportation.

School districts in high poverty areas can apply for assistance without regard to individual need.  Most schools do not, however, qualify under this provision.  Not all those that do qualify apply.

Though states are now required to formalize their food debt policies, only a handful prohibit the shaming of children for food debt [7].  In the richest nation on earth, children come to school hungry everyday, and GoFundMe hosts multiple efforts to raise money for food debt [5B][6B].

Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?… And the King will answer and say to them, ‘…inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to Me’ ” (Matt. 25: 37, 40).

[1]  National Center for Educational Statistics, “Bullying”,

[2]  National Center for Educational Statistics, “US Dept. of Education Web Tables – Student Reports of Bullying and Cyber-Bullying: Results from 20113 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey”, 4/15,

[3]  ECB Publishing, “Bullying:  not just about stealing lunch money anymore”, 12/8/15,

[4]  A 2014 study of high school students found that those being bullied were twice as likely to bring a weapon to school.  See, National Center for Educational Statistics, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety:  2014”,

[5A][5B]  New York Times, “Shaming Children So Parents Will Pay the School Lunch Bill” by Bettina Siegel,  4/30/17,

[6A][6B]  School Nutrition Association, “Paying Down the Unpaid Meal Debt” by Tim Davis, 2016,

[7]  Children’s Defense Fund, “Child Watch Column:  Banning ‘Lunch Shaming’ ” by Marian Wright Edelman, 4/28/17,

READERS CAN FIND MY VIEWS ON ABUSE AND ABUSE-RELATED ISSUES AT ANNA WALDHERR A Voice Reclaimed, Surviving Child Abuse  http://www.avoicereclaimed

  1. When I was in school, they had lunch call every day, and the teacher would collect the money, or you would have to say ” free lunch” which told the entire class you were poor.. The amount we pay for school tax.. it should cover meals for low income students..

  2. This is a tough one. I used to teach and often found that a lot of parents were impervious to shame when it came to paying their bills (I worked in a Catholic school). It didn’t seem to occur to them that their children might feel bad about lunch bills. In this school the kids were never targeted but the parents (some) had no problem buying expensive electronics in place of paying their lunch bills.

    On the other hand my parents sent us with cold lunches every day I went to school because at the time they couldn’t afford to send us in with money for hot lunch and it never occurred to me that I was in some way losing out.

    • Thank you for adding another point of view, Adrienne.

    • I think that buying expensive electronics for kids rather than paying lunch meals shows misplaced priorities. It may be difficult to tell who cannot actually afford the fees in such circumstances.

      • Those with limited means are not any wiser parents than those whose incomes are unlimited. Granted, they have less margin for error. But most parents want their children to have what other children do. And electronics sometimes take the place of (or maintain contact with) an absent parent. In inner city neighborhoods, children are often cautioned to remain inside for fear of drive-by shootings. They have few safe alternatives available.

      • Very true. It’s also hard to say no to your kids. 🙂

  3. A powerful post Anna. I had no idea.

  4. I agree Anna with Adrienne Morris although when I was going to School there were no Hot lunches we took sandwiches and fruit and so did the other Children, at night we had a Hot meal and desert, were others less fortunate, perhaps so and the Teachers cared for them but there was no discrimination.

    Anna why are there Hot lunches today that cause this discrimination, are there no hot meals at night, are Mothers too busy or Fathers not trained right.

    Blessings – Anne.

    • Poverty forces people to cut back in all areas of their lives, food included. Often parents allow children to eat first, and only eat if there is anything left over. Refrigerators are usually empty, apart from a few cans of beer or soda and a slice or two of pizza. Apart from mattresses, homes, themselves, may be empty of furniture.

      Supermarkets frequently shun the inner city, so fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to find. The local grocery store, assuming there is one, cannot afford to stock much fresh produce, in case of spoilage. In single parent households, the challenge is even greater. Parents may not be home in the evening. Late shifts pay overtime, so are preferable.

      For many of the poor, school lunches have become a lifeline, a reliable source of nutritional food. For some children, school lunch is the only real meal they will see.


      A. ❤

      • Yes very True Anna some have great need through no fault of their own and do need to be helped but some Parents I have encounted more than once when Ministering to their Children, waste their money on excessive Alcohol, Gambling, Drugs etc and their Children suffer but regardless the Children still need to be helped and it’s good to know they are.

        Blessings – Anne.

      • That’s a genuine issue in this broken world of ours, Anne. Do we let the children of those who may, themselves, be “undeserving” suffer for the sins of their parents? As Christians we must, I think, reach out to them.



  5. Also another issue is when school is out some children have inconsistent meals. Our city has a program where children can pick up a sack lunch from any city park during summer. Very important as this is the only meal for some children.

  6. The last words in the post are alarming. In the richest nation on earth, kids are starving. Where did we get it wrong? Where did all the money go?

    • That is a complicated question. The US is obviously a wealthy nation. But the nation’s wealth is not evenly distributed. And the cost of living is high, in comparison with some other countries. The 2017 poverty level for a family of four is $24,600. Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, and Milwaukee are among the nation’s poorest cities. The US is only now recovering from the 2008 Great Recession. Many people can only find part-time work. Such jobs do not provide for medical, dental, or education benefits. It is estimated that 12 million people spend more than 50% of their income on housing alone. That puts them at serious risk of homelessness at any given time. Apart from rent, food, and medical expenses, other costs can include, heat, electricity, phone, clothing, transportation, hygiene, household items, cleaning products, and children’s school supplies. Often the poor own no furniture but a mattress.

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