Rhode Island School Shames Students Who Can’t Afford Lunch

If there’s one thing that really steams my sprouts, it’s school lunch shaming. That is, making kids with lunch debt feel bad by refusing to serve them, serving them different food to make it obvious they’re in trouble or engaging in other tactics that humiliate them because they can’t afford school lunch.

The latest example comes from a Rhode Island school district, where kids with lunch debt will be served jelly sandwiches instead of a hot meal. The state forbids letting kids go hungry but doesn’t mandate that they get the same food as other children.

While a handful of schools provide lunch to everyone (it’s called universal lunch), most charge for school lunch. Some children are eligible for free or reduced lunches based on their family income, while the rest are expected to pay full price.

Students are supposed to get a nutritionally balanced meal, and they can purchase add-ons if they want to enhance their plates. But these add-ons are not always clearly disclosed, and that’s how some kids get into trouble. They may not realize they are incurring lunch debt when they pick up items, such as extra milk.

Each school handles so-called lunch debt differently, but generally it starts with bills sent home to parents and escalates from there. Some schools will stop serving lunch to students who owe money, while others will humiliate them with substandard meals. And some schools will even withhold diplomas until students have paid their lunch debt. Meanwhile, kindhearted cafeteria employees who hate these policies and feed kids anyway have been fired.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about children with no independent income to make good on their bills — not adults willfully refusing to pay. Moreover, kids take notice when classmates are singled out like this, and it can become a tool for bullying.

In response to this problem, some districts have organized debt repayment campaigns. Members of the community and anonymous donors pool money to pay off or reduce school lunch debt. A donation was actually offered in the Rhode Island case, but the district refused, saying it didn’t know how to distribute the funds “equitably.”

To add insult to injury, some parents in this case say the monies owed were pretty paltry. One parent said they got a bill for 5 cents!

It’s clear people across the political spectrum support education, even if we disagree about some of the finer points. And a fair number believe children should have access to nutritious food at school. There’s a huge body of evidence about the value of school lunches, and it’s an investment that pays off in a big way. Schools shouldn’t be put in the position of owing tens of thousands of dollars for their lunch programs, but the solution isn’t to make kids feel bad about not being able to afford food.

A number of states — including New Mexico, Iowa and Texas — have responded to this problem with legislation banning or restricting lunch shaming. But not every state has a law, and the legislation is not necessarily consistent.

The federal government sets other education standards, and that’s why Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, introduced a federal bill back in 2017. It unfortunately didn’t go anywhere, but the outrage over the situation in Rhode Island suggests it might be time for another try.

Take Action

Join other Care2 members signing this petition calling for Congress to enact a national ban on lunch shaming.

If you want to make a difference on an issue you find deeply troubling, you too can create a Care2 petition, and use this handy guide to get started. You‘ll find Care2‘s vibrant community of activists ready to step up and help you.

Photo credit: XiXinXing/Getty Images


Linda Wallace
Linda Wallace2 days ago


joan silaco
joan silaco4 days ago

Universal lunch like universal healthcare!

Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan Hill5 days ago


heather g
heather g5 days ago

Have the schools heard of 'communication'.

Carla T
Carla T5 days ago

I just lived through a Category 5 Hurricane Michael. When the Panama City schools were ABLE to open, many middle/high schools occupied the same buildings; some in the mornings; some in the evenings. It worked. I heard that ALL school children received FREE lunches for the rest of the school year. Thank you to EVERYBODY who donated to Hurricane Michael relief! The Salvation Army was amazing, too! Bay County, FL, school district was great and they are offering emotional support for the trauma we all went through. (just sharing) You never know what someone else may be going through in life. Our town was destroyed; jobs lost; 80,000 homes destroyed; 4000 school children listed as "homeless" now.

Sabrina Degasperi

Petition signed.

Lydia M
Lydia M7 days ago

To refuse hungry children food for whatever reason is morally wrong...

Clear distinctions should be negotiated by parents and schools, to come to the best solution for children to be fed.
One side blaming the other, does nothing to help or bring positive resolve, it's counter productive.
This isn't rocket science, get it sorted... Hungry children depend on being fed.!

Anna R
Anna R7 days ago

thank you

Frank Hanline
Frank Hanline7 days ago

And in Canada, a 9th grade student was told by his teacher he has a "punch-able face" for the crime of wearing a MAGA hat.

Now I can't stand tRump. He is an ass, but this type of intimidation anywhere is crap. Both the kid who wears a stupid MAGA hat can and the kid whose family is too poor should be called out.

Both are intimidation by those who have the power.

Joanna M
Joanna M7 days ago

We also see a lot of parents who send their kids to school with a bag lunch, but the kid racks up debt because he's either wanting a second lunch (not uncommon esp. among teen boys) or else the kids are buying a la carte items such as chips, ice cream, etc. Then the parents get mad and say they are refusing to pay, because they didn't authorize Junior to buy those things. Well, Junior did buy them and eat them, so now somebody needs to pay. Again, this isn't the case for everyone who has lunch debt, but these factors are very common and yet the articles that have been online in recent days are not addressing them.