Imagine you are a child in school. The lunch bell rings, you head to the cafeteria with your friends, stand in line, select your lunch, and when you get to the cashier, you are told that you cannot have your lunch, for your parents haven’t paid your lunch bill. You are handed a sandwich … or worse, the cashier throws your lunch in the trash and tells you to move out of the line. Your friends … they are looking at you … you feel as if every single kid in the cafeteria is looking at you. You are so embarrassed you wish the ground would open and swallow you. You run to the bathroom in tears. This is happening all over the United States.Some children are eligible for free lunch, but those who are not must rely on their parents to keep money in their school lunch account. Sometimes perhaps the parents are a bit short one week, or perhaps they simply forgot. It happens. Children should not have to go without a nutritious lunch and be shamed in front of the entire school for something over which they had no control. And yet, that is exactly what is happening across the nation.
In Warwick, Rhode Island earlier this month, the school district implemented a new policy that any child who has unpaid lunch fees or cannot afford to pay for his/her lunch will be denied a hot lunch and given only a “sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich”. The district claims to have “tens of thousands of dollars” of unpaid lunch fees and can no longer afford to extend lunch credit to the children.
Enter a good Samaritan, Angelica Penta, owner of a local restaurant, who offered $4,000 to help pay some of that lunch debt, but her offer was firmly rejected … twice! She was told that the school would have to decide which children’s accounts to apply the money toward, and so unless she specified whose accounts she wished to pay, or unless she paid the total they claim is owed, they could not accept her generosity. Meanwhile, children are being embarrassed and subjected to a sandwich made of … sunflower seeds???
But Warwick is only one such example, as I found out on researching for this post. This is happening all over the country and has been for some years! In Phoenix, Arizona, children’s arms are stamped with the words “Lunch Money” if their accounts are empty. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, lunches are thrown in the trash, rather than given to the children if they cannot pay. What a waste!!! A few states have recently banned what is called “lunch shaming”, but in others it is standard practice. In Rhode Island, legislation requiring all students to receive the same hot lunch regardless of their financial circumstances is pending, but meanwhile kids in Warwick schools are eating sunflower seed sandwiches and continuing to be embarrassed.
There are any number of steps the schools could have taken other than hurting the children. They could have contacted the parents by phone, discreetly sent a note home with the child, or even called the parent in for a consultation. The children do not have control of the family finances! There are a few heroes here, though. Ms. Penta’s assistance was ultimately accepted by a portion of the district, West Warwick, and she has set up donation jars in her restaurants where patrons can add money to help the cause. The rest of the district, however, continues to insist that she must specify which children she wishes to help. She has posted on her Facebook account that if anyone needs help paying for their lunch, to contact her and she would help.
Chobani, the yogurt makers, has given the district $47,650 to apply toward the debt the district claims it is owed. Now, oddly, the district first claimed the lunch debt was in the $40,000 range, but just a few days later claimed it was $77,000. Something fishy here … surely they do have an accountant? Thumbs up and hats off to Chobani for their compassion and humanitarianism, and thumbs down to Warwick, Rhode Island, where officials are putting profit ahead of the nation’s children.
It is wrong to punish the children for their parents’ oversight, and in most cases it is simply oversight. We’ve all forgotten to pay a bill, or other important tasks. We send our children to school to learn, and it’s hard to learn much if you are hungry, or if you have been embarrassed so badly in front of your friends that you just want the day to be over so you can go home. School lunch … such a simple thing … and yet it has become a monumental issue in this nation. We are so obsessed with money that we are harming our greatest resource, our children.
Along those same lines …
Remember a few days ago when I posted Nicholas Kristof’s piece about Teresa L. Todd, the good Samaritan who stopped to help three immigrant teens and was arrested by Border Patrol agents for her efforts? Well, here’s another similar story.
Bonnie Kimball was a cafeteria worker at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Canaan, New Hampshire until recently. Then on March 28th, she was fired by vendor Café Services for letting a student have a lunch even though his account had no money in it. Turns out that Café Services’ contract with the school was coming up for renewal and the school was considering switching to another company, so Café Services had head honchos in the school keeping an eye on the staff. Her letter of termination stated …
“On March 28, a District manager was on-site and witnessed a student coming through the line with multiple food items that you did not charge him for. This is a strict violation of our Cash Handling Procedures, the Schools Charge Policy and Federal Regulation governing free meals.”
Once the story was reported nationally by CNN, The Washington Post and others, the company told The Post that they would offer Ms. Kimball her job back, but it was obvious to all that their purpose was to stop the negative publicity that was having a negative effect on their contract negotiations, and Ms. Kimball declined.
The situation came to the attention of chef José Andrés, a humanitarian who has provided thousands of meals to victims of natural disasters and the homeless. Chef Andrés tweeted …
“New Hampshire school cafeteria worker fired for giving food to student who couldn’t pay … The hero is Bonnie Kimball! If she needs a job we have openings at @thinkfoodgroup if you know her, let her know!”
Is our society becoming so self-focused, so intent on squeezing every last cent out of people that we punish those who try to help others? It would seem so.