In Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, an area with a poverty rate of 13.8 percent, about 1,000 families received letters in August warning that unless their arrears were paid in full, they could be taken to Dependency Court for negligence. “The result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care,” threatened the missive, which was sent a month before the 2019-2020 school year began. The total owed, the district reported, was more than $22,000.
Meanwhile, in Richfield, Minnesota, where arrears totaled almost $20,000, 40 Richfield High School students — some of whom owed as little as $15 in meal fees — were given cold sandwiches after their hot lunches were tossed in the trash.
This phenomenon is so pervasive that it has a name: lunch shaming. It refers to a particular set of humiliating behaviors, most typically verbal taunts or threats, that are lobbed by school personnel after a caretaking adult falls behind in paying for a child’s breakfast, lunch or after-school snack. It can take a variety of forms and sometimes targets the blameless child and sometimes targets the adults, both of whom are victims of penury.