Community Eligibility: A Remedy for Lunch Shaming in Some School Districts

By Victoria Palacio

Imagine you’re a child buying lunch at school, only to have your tray taken—or even dumped—because your lunch account doesn’t have enough money. In some school districts, this is a reality.

It’s part of a disturbing trend called "lunch shaming," where schools publicly embarrass children whose parents have not paid. This includes marking students with a stamp reading “I Need Lunch Money” or giving them a cheese sandwich in place of the regular meal option. In response, the USDA is requiring school districts that participate in the national free lunch and breakfast program to post clear policies for how they’ll handle these situations. The deadline is July 1 to post policies, which will apply to the 2017-2018 school year.

Some states are approaching the issue constructively. Last month, New Mexico banned lunch shaming altogether. Texas is considering legislation that would allow students to get food from the school’s pantry when they don’t have money for meals. Others have addressed the issue through assistance from nonprofits or outside donors.

Unpaid school bills are a serious problem for many school districts. However, many students who have meal debt or come to school without lunch money are low income. This should qualify them for free or reduced-price meals. In many cases, parents don’t submit the needed paperwork because they have immigration-related concerns or their financial situations have changed since the start of the year. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) can address these challenges.

CEP allows low-income schools and school districts to secure free lunch for all their students when a certain percentage is verified as low income. This removes the administrative burden of schools collecting household applications to determine eligibility for school meals. It also removes any stigma from receiving free meals or having unpaid bills, as well as eliminates the potential for administrative errors. Currently, CEP reaches more than 8.5 million children in more than 18,000 schools. Many more are eligible but have yet to adopt it. June 30 is the deadline to opt in for the 2017-2018 school year.

Lunch shaming is psychologically harmful to children. It can also leave them without a meal or with an inadequate substitute. School districts that qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision should opt in for the upcoming school year. This is a practical way to end lunch shaming while preventing unpaid school bills.