School Lunches Should Not Be Used to Shame Poor Students

Politics Features School Lunch Shaming
School Lunches Should Not Be Used to Shame Poor Students

Is that the most morally obvious headline you’ve ever read? Well buckle up, because “shaming poor students” is exactly what happened at Richfield High School this past week, where students with more than $15 in debt for their lunches had their hot lunch items removed from their tray, very publicly, and tossed in the trash. You can see video footage along with a local news report here:

According to NBC News, the school is at least apologizing:

“We deeply regret our actions today and the embarrassment that it caused several of our students,” the district wrote in a statement Monday. “We have met with some of the students involved and apologized to them.”…

The school said students should not be told publicly in front of their peers that they owe money, and instead should be informed about any lunch debt from a social worker or a guidance counselor.

This is not a new issue, and while the apology hits the right notes, the district—and others around the country—should already know better. In fact, NBC News wrote a trend piece about school lunch shaming just one month ago, so this shouldn’t be a novel issue for Richfield High or any other public school in our country. (Along with the ritual shaming, the obscene wasting of food is another outrage.)

Of course, it would be easy to demonize the school, or the cafeteria workers, but the fact that it happens so often means we’re dealing with something systemic here. To blame the workers, loathsome as their actions might be, would be to make the same mistake they’re making, which is to confuse a societal problem with a personal one. There is a strain of thought operating in this country that associates poverty with moral failing and laziness, and an underlying belief that the poor don’t have to be treated with dignity or respect. This is an unavoidable side effect of living in a hyper-capitalist time and place, and it has infected us so deeply that we’ll even take it out on children. Remarkably, in cases like these, the perpetrators themselves are (presumably) not wealthy, and the fact that middle-to-lower-middle class workers are generally the ones propagating school lunch shame shows how deeply embedded this concept has become. In a country where wealth is equated with strength, those who have a little will despise nobody so much as those who have less.

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