Shaming the Victim

The recent focus on bullying reminds us not to label students. That includes dividing students into those whose parents pay their lunch bills and those who don’t.

Parents are expected to pay for their children’s lunches. Those without the ability to pay are encouraged to apply for the subsidized federal free and reduced lunch program. But some parents don’t meet the guidelines or don’t fill out the application – and don’t pay for their kids’ lunches.

That leaves the school district with an ugly alternative: Prevent those kids from buying a full lunch – singling them out and forcing staff to police the lunch line – or letting them eat even though their parents owe money.

Of course there’s one more alternative – parents could send their kids to school with a bagged lunch – but that doesn’t seem to happen.

The matter comes up regularly, and last week, it was the topic of discussion at the Derry School Board. The unpaid balance for Derry school lunches is up to $11,000. Office staff double as bill collectors.

Do we really want school staff patroling the lunch line, making kids whose parents don’t pay put back food, or throwing the food away when they get to the cash register? That’s inappropriate and humiliating and downright cruel.

We’re not fond of making kids whose parents don’t pay eat an “alternative” lunch either. How long does it take before their peers know who those kids are? But that’s what Derry is considering.

Board member Neal Ochs said “we shouldn’t put the burden on the children – it’s the parents’ responsibility.” We couldn’t have said it better.

But that’s what an alternative meal program would do.

It’s a national problem. In Salt Lake City, Utah recently, after elementary school cafeteria workers dumped lunches of students without enough money in their account to pay for them, the school district mandated all students who want to buy lunch will be allowed full meals.

Parental responsibility is the issue. Telling a hungry student he can’t eat a full meal because his parents owe money is humiliating for both staff and child. Going hungry is not a child’s responsibility.

We don’t know how to make parents into adults. And we know people can face financial hardship without warning. But the kids are not at fault, even if they’re hungry.

How about advocating to make subsidized meals more accessible? Or maybe generous residents would donate money to pay for meals of students whose parents can’t – or won’t.

But making kids suffer – that’s not a role schools should take on.

These are kids who need to eat lunch. Schools have to be the adults, even if the parents won’t be.

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