Thursday, May 18, 2017

Our Thoughts on Local 'Lunch Shaming'

Post submitted by Amanda Nickey, MHC President and CEO

As the director of one of the largest direct emergency food service providers in the region, I am deeply concerned by the MCCSC policy regarding unpaid school food bills and believe it does not reflect the caring community I know Bloomington to be.

Dr. DeMuth believes the policy works well because students aren’t denied food, and what she calls the “swapping out of the meals” – when the child is forced to hand over the meal they’ve selected and have it thrown it away, in return for a cheese or peanut butter sandwich, fruit, and milk- is handled delicately and is hardly noticeable by others, besides the recipient child.

The above is most disturbing to me because it seems to imply that the only concern is whether others notice the child receiving the alternate meal, not what it must feel like to be the child receiving the alternate meal. This leads me to believe that Dr. DeMuth and the board are ok with the child knowing he or she is being punished for the unpaid bill.

In my correspondence with Dr. DeMuth and the School Board I offered information about the extent to which hunger impacts our community, sharing that 1 in 5, or close to 5,000 kids in our community face hunger and that close to a third of families experiencing food insecurity aren’t eligible for SNAP and other assistance programs.

Punishing children for decisions outside of their control creates even more stress for families on the edge. Many families in our community are already making difficult financial decisions between paying bills, the rent, or buying food. And while it is not a social issue the schools have an obligation or the resources to solve, it is one they can choose to not make worse.

To force a child to throw away a hot lunch and take a cold one, regardless of the nutritional value or who sees it, is cruel. It communicates to the child that they are undeserving of being treated with dignity and respect.

It is clear that the collection of the debt is a very important issue for Dr. DeMuth and the board. The statement by Dr. DeMuth that the policy works well for the district seems to imply that making children give back and throw away the food they’ve already selected in exchange for a different meal, is effective in getting parents to pay the debt. 

Regardless of whether this tactic achieves the goal, I have to question the collective ability of the School Board and Dr. DeMuth to lead a school district reflective of our community values if their best method is to actively harm children to make parents pay the bill. Making a child take an alternate lunch, throwing away food they have already selected, and addressing debt collection through the child in the first place, are cruel and abusive tactics and have no place in our schools. I find it unbelievable that given what we know about child development, bullying behaviors, the connection between poverty, shame, and food insecurity, that our school board would choose to continue this practice and make it an official policy of the district.

Simply removing the child from the equation is the best and most reasonable solution. I have shared a resource guide with Dr. DeMuth and the School Board from the Food Research and Action Center on crafting a policy that doesn’t harm children and ensures that families get connected with valuable programs like reduced cost and free lunch. I urge them to review the guide and create a policy better reflective of our community values.

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