An Alabama father was furious last year after his son was sent home from school with a stamp that said, “I need lunch money.” The story has resurfaced in the midst of the debate over student debt policies in American cafeterias, which many contend are humiliating and barbaric.
In June 2016, Jon Bivens’ son came home from school with a stamp on his arm. Initially believing that it was “a good-job stamp,” Bivens realized that the school cafeteria had given his son a stamp informing everyone that he was low on lunch money. Bivens says that the school had not contacted him by email, as usual, to let him know that the balance on his son’s account was running low and that there was still $1.38 left in the account after Bivens’ son had bought his lunch.
Bivens’ story is not uncommon in the contentious battle over America’s cafeterias. In many districts, students whose accounts have fallen short have their hot lunches taken away from them in front of their peers. Sometimes, the hot lunch is replaced with a cheese sandwich, often dubbed “the sandwich of shame.” In other districts, the sandwich is not replaced at all.
Students without lunch money may also face deliberate embarrassments, meant to shame their parents into paying their debts. In some districts, students who fall behind on payments may need to have a stamp or wear a wristband. New Mexico Sen. Michael Padilla, who championed the recent Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, remembers having to do chores in front of his peers to earn his meals.
The policy takes a toll on the cafeteria workers who need to enforce it. “It’s the worst part of the job,” says Matt Antignolo, who worked in a school cafeteria before becoming the director of food services at the Lamar Consolidated District near Houston. “Nobody likes it,” says Antignolo. Indeed, there have been several high-profile cases of American cafeteria workers coming into conflict with their school’s administration over it. In 2015, Colorado cafeteria worker Della Curry alleges that she was fired when she offered to pay for a student’s lunch. And the next year, Pennsylvania lunch worked Stacy Koltiska (pictured below) resigned from her position after being forced to take away food from a student and throwing it out.
Some on the frontlines have organized to ensure that no student goes without lunch. Chris Robinson, a special education teacher in Texas, started a GoFundMe page to “do something about those cheese sandwiches.” As of November 2017, the page has raised $23,526. Amina Ishaq, the president of a Texan Parent Teacher Organization, recently set up a GoFundMe with the goal of raising the $15,500 necessary to erase student lunch debt at her school. Her page has raised almost $20,000, and Ishaq is happy that “so many kids are gonna benefit!”
And, after New Mexico banned lunch shaming this year, a bipartisan Senate committee has launched the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017. If the bill passes, no school authorities may permit “public identification or stigmatization of the child” with a wristband or hand stamp, or humiliate the child by requiring them to perform extra chores or throw out food after it has been given to them. For Bivens, a change in policy can’t come soon enough. “They herd these kids like cattle,” he told local news reporters. “When you start stamping a message on a child’s body instead of calling…it’s not okay.”
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