Earlier this week at our neighborhood school, Uintah Elementary, about forty children stood in line to pay for their lunches only to have them abruptly taken away and then thrown into the trash. Why? Because their parents had not paid their cafeteria bill. Even though my children were not involved, I feel this needlessly harsh act in complete public view was extremely disturbing on so many levels – the humiliation, the waste, and the bullying by school administrators.
Yes, bullying. How could it be classified as anything else – it was aggressive, intimidating and humiliating for all of the children involved. Shame, shame, shame on who ever thought this was a good plan. Apparently, the lovely cafeteria worker, Shirley, who puts her heart and soul into those kids burst into tears at the whole affair. So did a few kids.
The shocked children with overdue balances who just had their hot lunch confiscated and dumped, were then told to go get a milk and an orange. ”So she took my lunch away and said, ‘Go get a milk,’” Sophia said. “I came back and asked, ‘What’s going on?’ Then she handed me an orange. She said, ”You don’t have any money in your account so you can’t get lunch.”
Giving a child with an overdue balance “fruit and milk only” will not solve the problem either as kids are very savvy and will understand that “those kids” are coming from either poor families or families derelict in paying their bills — especially after the regretful and very public incident yesterday. The end result is the child will still very likely be humiliated in front of their peers. My guess is many children will forgo any lunch in order to avoid the public shame. Countless studies show that good nutrition and regular meals are essential to learning, so how is this policy supporting students or teachers?
I understand that there are parents who do not for whatever reason pay their school bills, and this draconian policy will likely result in more bills being paid, but there must be another way that does not humiliate children for something they have so little to no control over. I urged school administrators to look into other options. Maybe a slush-fund that can help cover bills temporarily? Or just automatically enroll these children with chronic negative balances in the Federal Free Lunch program. At the very least, warn the child privately before he or she goes to the lunch line and tries to collect a lunch!
Furthermore, if a family is truly financially-strapped, then we should come together as a community and make sure there is enough money in each child’s account so that they can be guaranteed access to a healthy lunch daily. I personally, would be happy to help a family in legitimate need and I am sure many others would be willing to help out too.
Our neighborhood is relatively affluent and politically-active, so outraged parents, including me, made sure the press was alerted to this Dickens-like situation – and now the story has gone viral, even across the pond to the BBC. Additionally, two state senators were notified and they showed-up the next day to have lunch with kids and find out exactly why this happened. With this immediate backlash by parents, the Child Nutrition Manager who made this shameful decision, was put on paid administrative leave. Many of us parents have called for this person’s – who has not been named – termination.
Ironically, earlier this month, former Colorado elementary school principal Noelle Roni said she opposed a similar shaming practice at her school, where kids who had zero or negative balances on their cafeteria accounts would have their hands stamped before lunch, so that they could only get a milk and a fruit. Roni says she had tried to halt this humiliating hand-stamping program and for that she was fired.
What suggestions do Care2 readers have that do not involve confiscating lunches from the hands of babes to solve this problem?