Education News

Some students face daily hardship because of hunger and lunch-shaming

by Marit Vike

Every educator dreams of a classroom and school where all students are in rapt attention. Sadly, this is not possible when students come to school hungry and cannot manage to muster the focus needed to learn. The need for food can be all consuming, and “it’s like the pain of the hunger is like eating at you. You’re mostly thinking about food because all you want to do is eat, get rid of the hunger feeling. You can’t really do your work,” says Mario, a 13-year-old student. Educators see many students like Mario, according to a new report.

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No Kid Hungry’s report, titled “Hunger in Our Schools,” provides a look at the daily hardship some students face because of hunger. Food insecurity creeps into the lives a majority of families, with 59 percent of parents admitting that their families’ food supply would run out and they could not afford to buy any more. Many parents and children live in constant fear of what happens when that food runs out.

Currently, one in every six kids is facing hunger. Students across the country, in every community, are facing this hardship and carrying it into the classroom with them. And educators can tell.

Many educators have to watch as they see the toll on their students.

  • 80 percent of teachers see those students not concentrating
  • 76 percent see them drop-off in academic performance
  • 62 percent see behavioral problems develop.

Educators, often of the last line of defense for students, can’t help but get involved. In fact, 57 percent of teachers regularly buy food for students who come to school hungry. Compassion and concern for their students has always pushed educators to do more than required or even expected for their students.

“For some of our kids, Monday is a rough day, not knowing how much food they had that weekend. But it’s never the child’s fault that they’re hungry,” Joslyn Waldron, a Fairfax, VA, elementary school social worker told No Kid Hungry.

Sixteen-year-old Don puts into sharp focus what it’s like to be hungry while at school. “My focus is different when I’m hungry. Of course I’m gonna be thinking about food. I’m gonna be thinking about which one of my classmates got food. I’m gonna be thinking about which one of them might share their food.”

While educators regularly step up to help hungry children, some lawmakers have also taken notice and decided to step in to right a consequence of not being able to afford food at school: lunch shaming. Currently, there are state policies that force school cafeteria staff to throw out a student’s lunch or give them a weak alternative such as a cheese sandwich when a child has meal debt rather than extending credit for meals.

“It is completely absurd that students would be shamed at school based on their inability to purchase food,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania, a sponsor of a bipartisan bill, the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, to prevent lunch shaming. “I am confident that this legislation will do its part to stop students suffering from humiliation for circumstances outside of their control. This is bullying and I am saddened that we have to write legislation to ensure it ends.”

The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act prohibits shaming tactics by requiring schools to direct communications regarding meal debt to the parent, not the child. The bill also aims to make the process for applying for free and reduced price lunch applications simpler by expressing that it is the sense of Congress that schools should provide these applications more effectively to the families who need them, coordinate with other programs to ensure that homeless and foster children are enrolled for free meals, and set up online systems to make paying for meals easier for parents when possible.

Lack of reliable access to nutritious food is not limited to K-12 schools. Food insecurity – the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food – is common at colleges and universities across the country, concludes a report last year from the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. Among the report’s findings:

  • 48 percent of survey respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.
  • Food insecurity occurs at both two-year and four-year institutions. Twenty-five percent of community college students qualified as having very low food security, compared to 20 percent at four-year schools.
  • Food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color. Fully 57 percent of Black or African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white students.
  • More than half of all first-generation students (56 percent) were food insecure, compared to 45 percent of students who had at least one parent who attended college.

39 responses to “Some students face daily hardship because of hunger and lunch-shaming

  1. I know I am a few years behind but I am a freshman in college doing a report over this subject and I would just like to make a few comments. Financial hardships can spring up at anytime in life. These hardships do not determine whether you are a fit parent or not. Children can not control their financial situation, so even if the parents had a child knowing they couldn’t afford it, that is not the child’s fault therefore the child should not be punished. And school is a requirement for all children, in which we are expected to perform our best but children can not focus with empty stomachs and are not allowed to bring snacks. many children don’t get food at home for many reasons. we don’t know the situation of their home life, therefore we don’t get to make judgments. Schools claim to be a safe place for children, a place where they go to learn and grow but how can they do that without food? I understand there are probably concerns with taxes and where the funds for free lunches are coming from but for me, paying a little extra so that a child wont go hungry is worth it. And as an old teacher once said to me “If you are able to respond, then you are responsible.” So instead of punishing children because of their financial situation, lets come together and be kind to one another and make sure children get meals at school. Whatever it takes, we should do it.

  2. As a School Nutrition Employee, I can complain about both sides of this argument all day long.
    #1-Yes, my district cannot remove extra food from a child’s plate, throw the plate away, offer alternative meals, etc. that everyone classifies as lunch shaming. We do not turn a child away from getting a reimbursable meal ( a serving of 3 of the 5 food groups and one must be a fruit or veggie). And my school has many children who truly need the food, and their parents are struggling. But for every kid that is in need, there is a kid taking advantage of the system.
    I have 19 students in my school with a combined debt owed to the cafeteria of $3,400. To them, it is a game. They know we can’t deny them food. The pull wads of cash from their pockets in front of us and refuse to pay on their accounts. I call parents, and I get nowhere. The parents don’t care either. They just threaten to call the local news stations and say that I am harassing them because their children want to eat school lunch.
    #2 I spend a ridiculous amount of time every school year chasing parents down to get them to fill out their free and reduced forms. Even the families in need will drag their feet about filling the paperwork out. This is free food and one less bill and you think they would want to get this over with every year. And I fill out forms on behalf of the parents all of the time.
    Now imagine if every kid got lunch free automatically. Wouldn’t that be nice?
    The answer is “no”. Because do you know what other government program that uses the information given on the free-reduced lunch forms that benefit the schools…? Title I
    Ask your child’s teacher or principal how many school programs are funded by Title I money. Now if you think it’ll be hard getting a parent to fill out free-reduced forms before a universal free lunch is provided, think of how difficult it will become after. And all of the funds that will disappear.
    #3 Please, don’t get me started on the whole “getting leftovers from somewhere” or “giving the leftovers to the families in need” argument. We live in a society of opportunity and humans are opportunistic creatures. All it would take would be one parent to sue because their little one got food poisoning from something that wasn’t properly handled or stored because Little Johnny just threw it in his book bag all weekend.
    The School Lunch Program has many flaws and there is not one right answer to correct any of it.

  3. My name is Alyssa and I am 12 years old. At my school, the lunch still leaves me hungry and that leaves me hungry until 5 which is when i get home. The bones of the chicken is bigger than the meat they give us! I’m always hungry and depressed and school just gets harder and harder! The school lunch just isn’t enough! My mom has one job and studies at Community College while my dad works 2 jobs yet we can barely pay the bills! Because of this, my parents cant afford to buy me a lunch everyday!

    1. hello Alyssa! my name is Maddie and i’m dealing with the same issue. most students at my school don’t eat because the food we are served is either cold, wet, hard, soggy or expired. i haven’t ate in about 3 hours and i burn energy quickly for some reason, and i’m not allowed to bring a snack unless i have a excuse from a doctor saying so,. to be honest, it grinds my gears when teachers say “well sorry, i have nothing for you to snack on” while they drink sprite and eat rubbish sweets. I mean, am i right or not?


  4. I have taught Middle School for many years and have raised 4 children, the baby of the family now in middle school. Although we provide portable breakfast and other choices, my youngest refuses to eat breakfast. I have found this true with children I taught in the same age group. Breakfast was free at the school and lunches are usually free or reduced (Title I). The students are sometimes ashamed to eat because of the body shaming that they inherit in our American culture. However, they have no problem eating a bag of Taki’s or chips throughout the day because that’s the “cool” way. No bill passed will change the way adolescents behave.

  5. I see this in the students at my title 1 school. What I can’t understand is why so many students are throwing away so much/nearly all of their lunches??? I ask those especially in the younger grades to take a few more bites, or try it or at least eat the strawberries or milk/bread, but they just want to head outside?? Do mister schools also need to reverse lunch/recess so the kids don’t just rush outside to play? Our district has won awards for their fabulous healthy and wonderful appealing lunches, so the food is usually actually something I would eat myself.

  6. My husband and I lost our teaching jobs one after the other at a private college. We had been good tax paying citizens who needed help and fast! We were living paycheck to paycheck due to the rising cost of health insurance as a family of 3 we did our best to meet our needs NOT WANTS! When we became unemployed and under employed it was shocking how difficult it was to qualify for help for food and medical care. There was such a low poverty threshold of income that we nearly qualified for anything. So disappointing when we had paid into the system for so many years yet saw people abuse it and lie to get the benefits. In order to provide for our child I stood in line at churches and community food pantries with tears in my eyes and thoughts running through my head of “I’m not one of these people” yet in reality “I WAS”! As a teacher I know first hand what that worry of hunger is like and the fear of whether my child feels it too. I am humble and appreciative of the school lunch program providing my child with breakfast and lunch when I couldn’t. Some parents have to make hard choices a roof over there families head or food-while eagerly searching for employment. Unemployment only lasts so long and I learned a valuable life lesson of compassion and humility I will never forget. My family ate the foods that the stores could no longer sell and I was thankful to have it. Don’t be so prideful reach out for help if you need it; keep your worries in prayer and God will provide. Offering the meals at school for ALL students only seems right, no child should feel uncomfortable or experience the pain of hunger or ridicule of others knowing they can’t afford to eat.

  7. The whim of charity will not alleviate food insecurity. Vote for candidates who support an equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of an economy which is adequate to meet the needs of the people. SNAP was defeated by being tied to a farm bill that benefited the farm industry. Many people lost supplemental nutrition assistance with elderly, disabled, and children carrying the burden.

  8. The best commentary here is from Susan
    Baker and other “Liberals”. Compassion is the key word. All children deserve compassion, care and love. No child should go hungry, and no child should be shamed and given minimum food. As for the comments regarding cell phones and “big screened TV’s” those are adult decisions and misplaced judgement on a child. I am a retired school nurse and am thankful for all of the “liberals” who were compassionate enough to help me in programs within our school: food, clothing and other needs.

  9. In the 36 years I taught, I always kept a supply of graham crackers and over packed my lunches so I always had breakfast for the children who came to school hungry. Sometimes those hungry kids included middle class kids caught up in the morning rush without a “portable breakfast” available. No class discrimination was ever present when it came to helping students be alert and attentive.
    Those poor parents weren’t doing drugs or drinking, they were working 2 jobs instead. Simplifying the process to apply for free/reduced lunches and before school breakfast programs would go a long way help stop the hunger.
    The districts I worked in were good about no lunch shaming but for some reason there was a coded mark made in the corner of the lunch tickets to indicate status. Has to be a better way to keep track for government reports.

  10. No child should go hungry – EVER! My mother-in-law was a lunch lady years ago. She kept extra food supplies and collaborated with the school nurse to make sure every child had something to eat during the school day even when told not to. Her compassion was remarkable.

  11. We are the most industrialized country in the world and we cannot feed our own children. It’s unacceptable. All school breakfast and lunch should be free to students.

  12. Stacey, the kids shouldn’t be punished for the parents’ choices of where to spend their money. While I don’t think lunch should be free for all, I do know that they cannot do their best work when hungry. I have had students come to school having had no breakfast and have given them a breakfast bar. You see the ones with cell phones…you don’t see the ones who don’t have anything extra. Both you and Diana are at the extreme end of the issue…neither idea will work! And no I don’t have the answers either.

  13. and the teachers should get lunch for like $1.00 as well. So m7uch of the food is discarded by the school children. bi taught for the last ten years and have seen plenty. They charged the teachers $3. I didn’t have to pack a lunch and after we got our Special Ed KIDS THROUGH THE LINE we didn’t even get our legal half hour duty free. They were told to give us a middle school portion. They were usually generous and gave us a little extra. Puhleese. Free for all kids is the way to go. $ extra for extras, $1 token for teachers.

    1. I’ve been a teacher my entire career. The issue here is childhood hunger. Why are you throwing into this serious issue your own perceived needs that not only distract from this crisis but, if granted, would take away from funds to serve those in need? You have the choice to being your own lunch or eat the school lunch.

  14. I am proud to say the New Mexico was the first state to outlaw lunch shaming. Earlier this year the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Right, passed with bi-partisan support and was signed by Republican Governor Susana Martinez. New Mexico, which appears near the bottom in so many polls, led the nation in ensuring that its children have the nutrition they need to learn.

  15. Des Moines School District is first one in Iowa to offer free breakfast to all elementary students. No forms to complete, etc. It’s available to all.

  16. We need toake it possible for restaurants to donate what they would normally throw a out The night before. Those programs work, and a hungry kid is happy to eat Chinese food or pizza for breakfast. That is often more nutritious than the breakfasts or lunches we serve at school.

  17. Re: R. Berezin’s comment. Even if this is partially true the children should not pay for the sins of the parents. Not sure what your intent is with your comment. Do you have first hand knowledge about what parents are doing with their meager funds?

    1. I depended on my daughter getting breakfast and lunch at school everyday when she was young because everything is so expensive and the minimum wage doesn’t pay enough to live on. I was so grateful for the meals she got at school. I didn’t spend money on cigarettes or alcohol. The comment you made was very hurtful and judgemental.

    2. NOT the kids fault. It’s the kid who is being shamed, not the parent.
      Parents being bad parents are a)a relatively rare occurrence and b)NOT THE KID’S FAILT.

    3. well you know what? some parents dont give 2 craps if that kid had breakfast, ate food, or anything else, and the law calls them good parents. mabye you can not be a pain and step in their shoes for once.

  18. i agree with a sponsored bill
    no other way to get people to cooperate
    no child should go hungry
    people have to be more careful before they all have kids
    sadly just because people are rich are not always the best
    the children may excel and make sure to change their life
    the teachers, parents and principals should make sure

    1. Diana, you and all the other liberals can use YOUR money to pay for this. People need to stop having children they cannot afford to raise and feed. Absolutely ridiculous that taxpayers and teachers foot the bill for this, and YES, these kids DO have cell phones, big screens, etc.

      1. Diana, I do not agree that all lunch in schools should be free. That’s a ridiculous tax burden to place on America and would ultimately, be wasteful spending. Stacey, In some cases, you are right. Many hungry kids do have cell phones, big screens, etc. However, many more do not. In my life I have seen many families go from HAVE to HAVE NOT very quickly. Perhaps you should consider what would happen if the wage earners in your home were suddenly unemployed for many months, and then, severely under employed. Would you lose your house? The kids you could “afford to raise and feed” when you had them would be out of luck. It’s easy to throw rocks when you view yourself as “sinless.” It’s a lot harder on the other side. This issue is not as clear cut as you want it to be. Not all hungry children have cell phones just like all not humans are decent people. But the hungry people we are talking about are CHILDREN. They are innocent, blameless. If they lived in your neighborhood and you saw them EVERY DAY, would you feel concern? Would you develop compassion? Would you want to feed them? If not, maybe you need to look harder at yourself before slamming others.

        1. True compassy would be for the schools to REPORT parents not feeding their children! How did early man manage without free govt programs? If a child is not being fed at home then they are probably neglected and abused in worse ways at home. This is an easy out and a band-aid on a MUCH bigger problem. Schools are on the forefront of keeping those kids safe instead of just throwing taxpayer money at it makes you feel okay about it.

      2. It is unfortunate that children are in the middle. They have no say as to the situations they are born and the choices their parents make. In other words morally children need to be cared for even if one does not agree with the lifestyle of their caregivers.

      3. Hey, Stacey, Judge not lest you be judged. I know parents with 1 kid who sometimes can’t keep up with all the bills. I’m guessing you call yourself a Christian, or at least a human being. Try acting as one of them

      4. Stacey–with your “holier-than-thou”, judgemental attitude! Try putting your self in the place of some of these people. — And, besides, their kids aren’t to blame for their parents’ negligence!
        What we OUGHT to do is simply provide free lunches for everybody, with out stigmatizing the kids who can’t pay for or bring their own. I believe that is done in a number of European countries.

      5. Stacey – Talk about a laundry list of sweeping generalizations! Every parent is 100% to blame for failing to provide enough food for their child? Every poor kid has a cell phone and a big screen at home? Being compassionate automatically makes you a liberal? Maybe it’s time to turn off FOX NEWS and broaden your world!

      6. Yes it is ridiculous that parents don’t or can’t provide food for their kids. Punishing innocent children and teens for their parents’ misfortunes is also ridiculous, and mean-spirited.

      7. You know, conservative politicians cutting Planned Parenthood leaves poor people in a situation where they get pregnant, and have to have the baby because abortion or adoption is not an option. Maybe if you conservative people would stop thinking about the babies ONLY before they are born we wouldn’t have this issue.

      8. My name is Alyssa and I am 16 years old, both of my parents work full time and yet they can barely pay the bills! So I think lunches SHOULD be free, I barely eat everyday and school just gets harder and harder! So I disagree with you Stacey!

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