When I was a kid, it was the red lunch ticket. Today it's the plain cheese sandwich. In both instances the message is loud and clear — and humiliating: "This child does not have enough money for lunch."
All across the country, public schools serve federally subsidized hot lunches to kids on a sliding scale based on financial need. When I was in school, the kids who got free or reduced-fee lunches "paid" for those lunches with a red ticket rather than the blue ticket given to kids whose parents paid the full fare.
I'm sure those tickets were part of some well-intentioned plan to count the number of kids utilizing the subsidized program, but for the kids in the lunchroom, those tickets screamed poverty louder than any words ever could have.
As far as I know, those red tickets have gone the way of pocket protectors and smoking lounges, but they have simply been replaced by the latest scarlet letter of the school cafeteria, the plain cheese sandwich.
In many school districts across the country, policies have been enacted that deny hot lunches to students who have a negative balance in their school lunch accounts. I have seen story after story of a student's hot lunch being taken away from them while they're in line, only to be replaced with a cheese sandwich. Often, the child is then lectured about their negative balance (a financial situation that they have no control over) and told — in front of their peers — that they will not be allowed to have a hot lunch until their balance is paid. And I thought the red tickets were harsh.
In one recent high-profile case, a cafeteria worker from Pennsylvania resigned in protest of her school's "lunch-shaming" policy after she was told for the second time this school year to take a hot lunch away from a child.
It's no secret that budgets are tight at schools across the country. For many, the unpaid balances on school lunch accounts add up to the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But surely there's a better way to recoup these funds than shaming kids in front of their friends.
A federal mandate
And as of July 1, per the Department of Agriculture, there will be. That's the deadline for all states to establish policies on how to treat schoolchildren who cannot pay for their lunches.
“We’re not telling schools what to put in their policy, but we do want them to think about the issue,” said Tina Namian, who oversees the school meals policy branch. The department does not prohibit practices that stigmatize children with meal debt, but offers a list of “preferred alternatives,” such as working out payment plans and allowing children with unpaid balances to eat the regular hot meal.
Some cities and states already have such policies in place. New Mexico passed a law in March that directs schools to speak with parents only about financial matters and prohibits the "cold cheese sandwich" approach. Minnesota, San Francisco and Houston also recently adopted anti-lunch-shaming policies.
Then there are individuals who take matters into their own hands...
Enter the Lunch Angel
Kenny Thompson (aka the Lunch Angel) has created an alternative, too. Thompson, a tutor and mentor at a Houston elementary school, was having lunch with one of his mentees when that child's lunch was taken away and replaced with a cheese sandwich. When Thompson inquired, he learned that this had been happening time and time again to students throughout the school. After talking with students, he also learned that many avoided the cafeteria altogether rather than face such public humiliation.
Thompson went out to his car and cried. Then he went back into the school and spoke with administration.
"I talked to the principal of the school and made it known that I didn’t want to ever see that again," Thompson told Nonprofit Quarterly.
"It was horrifying; it broke my heart," he added. "These are elementary kids. They’re not bankers, and not responsible for the financial issues in the household."
Thompson then paid off any outstanding balances remaining on any student's account out of his own pocket. And he added a small buffer to each so that the kids would have a few days before they went back into the red. Then he launched his own nonprofit, Feed the Future Forward, with the specific mission of helping students pay for school lunches and ending the policy of lunch shaming.
Feed the Future Forward raises funds by hosting charity events and collecting donations. The group uses all proceeds to pay off outstanding balances at school cafeterias in the Houston area. Since its launch last year, the program has expanded from one school to nearly 141 schools and 150,000 students in seven school districts.
It's not an ideal solution, but nothing ever is. What's important is that it benefits schools and students while helping every child gain access to a decent meal. And it does so without shaming kids in any way.
Now that's one fundraiser I'd be glad to support.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in September 2016.