From the time I was in elementary school until I graduated from high school, I relied on reduced and free breakfast/lunch programs at my schools. I’m grateful that I never went without, thanks to this program, to what was then called “food stamps,” and to extended family support.
During these developmental years, I think it’s safe to say that no one wants to feel like they are “different” in ways that mean something is wrong with them. “Different” often evolves into shame, and a sense of shame created by external sources (from adults to other kids to policies and programs) can do immeasurable damage to individuals–immeasurable and long-lasting.
So it is utterly disgusting that “lunch shaming” BY SCHOOL OFFICIALS AND SCHOOL DISTRICTS is a thing. A not-uncommon thing. To wit, from Eater:
“An Alabama elementary school stamps a child’s arm with the message: “I need lunch money.” A Minnesota school district warns graduating seniors that they will not receive caps and gowns unless their meal debt is paid. A New Hampshire cafeteria worker is fired for serving students with outstanding lunch bills.”
Think about that child as an adult in charge takes a stamp, stamps their arm, and forces them to walk around with “I need lunch money” emblazoned on their arm. Think about that experience, and of sitting in class or walking in the halls or riding the bus with that on your arm.
I think it’s indicative of the dark manifestations of the American bootstrapping narrative that “lunch shaming” is a trenchant problem. If a child can’t pay for lunch, there must be something “wrong” with their parents. They aren’t working hard enough, or budgeting properly, or just being decent hard working god-loving patriotic AmeriCANS. And, therefore, there must be something wrong with the kids as well.
Poverty is a complicated thing, but the virulent classism of capitalist America is harming adults, and it is harming children. Even worse, it can push children down a path that fulfills the very narrative driving classist assumptions about who needs support and why.
Think about those shamed children. Is that what you want?
Or let me tell you–I know how it feels to stand in a lunch line with your free lunch card while your friends pay for their lunches. Or to stand in a grocery store checkout line, thumbing through your book of food stamps while people stare at you impatiently. It’s hard, and if the messaging you get from everywhere as a child is that you’re not right for being in this situation, it will haunt you.
It will haunt you for a very, very long time.