The Incentives Behind Lunch Shaming

William Moreau and Jessamine Pilcher

Broadly speaking, “lunch shaming” refers to the overt identification and stigmatization of any student who does not have money to buy a school meal. While the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) narrowly applies this overt identification to students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch, in practice legal lunch shaming occurs against students whose family income exceeds free or reduced lunch eligibility thresholds. The purpose of lunch shaming is to embarrass a student and parent(s) so that a school lunch debt is paid quickly, in turn reducing a school’s financial burden.

Instances of lunch shaming include marking a child (e.g., with a stamp that says, “I Need Money”); providing a student with an alternative meal inferior to, and different from, other students’ paid-for meals; and, in one instance, forcing a student to perform manual labor in exchange for a meal. In Michigan, a high school student’s lunch was taken away and thrown in the trash in front of his peers because his lunch account had an outstanding balance of $4.95. In another example, a student’s breakfast was thrown in the trash because he owed 30 cents on his meal account. His mother received a call to let her know the school was denying her son a breakfast. Though she told the school she was on her way to pay and asked that they let her son eat until she arrived, the school refused.

These tactics result from how school lunches are funded. Every state establishes and funds its lunch programs, but differences exist among state statutory schemes. In Indiana, school lunch programs are authorized at the state level while individual school corporations operate the lunch programs at the county level. Lunch programs are optional and self-supporting, meaning government taxes cannot support them. Student purchases mainly fund lunch programs, but the programs may accept aid in the form of federal and state cash assistance, federal commodities, and charitable donations.

The state and federal governments recognize two groups of students: those who qualify for federal assistance as defined by the USDA, and those who do not qualify because their family income is too high. However, a third group exists: students whose family’s income exceeds free or reduced-price meal eligibility thresholds but who cannot afford to purchase a meal daily. There are both federal protections and cash assistance for students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Unfortunately, beyond local school policy, there are no specific protections at either the federal or state level to prevent lunch shaming students whose families earn just above the eligibility threshold. New Mexico is the exception, and in 2017 passed legislation to prohibit lunch shaming of any student regardless of family income.

In Indiana, each school is responsible for its own unpaid meal charge policy. When ineligible students cannot pay for lunch, their personal lunch account has a negative balance. Unpaid meal charges impact a school’s lunch fund and set in motion various accounting obligations for the school. The school is required to use all means available to collect the debt and is given a reasonable time of up to a year or more to collect from the debtors. If a debt is deemed uncollectable, then it becomes “bad debt.” A school may not have a balance of less than zero on any fund. As bad debt cannot be paid using federal money, the school must rely on money from its other funds, additional state aid, or charitable donations to make up the deficit. Once money moves from another fund to reimburse the debt in the school lunch fund, the school may lose resources for educating the entire school corporation, salaries, or the school could lose the lunch program altogether.

Lunch shaming is the consequence of the budgeting system, and students bear the burden of the system’s shortcomings.

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William Moreau and Jessamine Pilcher

William Moreau is a partner and chair of higher education practice group at Barnes & Thornburg LLP in Indianapolis, Indiana. Jessamine Pilcher is a law student at Indiana University McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, Indiana.