Across the nation, including here in Maine, children are being publicly shamed at school for not having money to pay for their lunch. Some schools forcibly remove food from children and throw it away, while other schools give children less nutritious or less costly meals if they do not have the money to pay for their lunch. In some instances, children’s hands are being stamped or they are being forced to wear wristbands that signify to their parents and their peers that they owe lunch money to the school. This can be incredibly embarrassing, shameful and can even lead to feelings of guilt about their inability to pay for their meal.
LD 167, An Act to Prevent Food Shaming in Maine’s Public Schools, aims to prevent actions like these, as well as other shameful tactics schools have used against low-income students. This bill prevents schools from punishing students for not being able to pay for their meals and disallows schools from refusing to provide a child with a meal as a disciplinary tool. Furthermore, this bill requires that all correspondence about meal debt only occur between school officials and the children’s parents, rather than with the child directly.
As a child born into extreme poverty, I struggled to eat nutritious meals each day. While in school, I often relied upon school lunches to provide me with basic nutrition, since less healthy options at home were generally cheaper and lasted longer. There were many times during my childhood when the food I received at school was the only food I ate all day. I explicitly remember the embarrassment I felt while receiving “free lunch” in high school, with the limited menu options and separate serving area for “free and reduced lunch” students.
Having your basic needs met, including access to adequate food, water and shelter, is essential to productive learning, feelings of belonging and positive self-esteem. As adults, we can distinguish between our ability to focus and contribute at work or home when we feel “hangry” and tired, compared to when we are fed and well rested. Children eventually become adults and we, as a community, should be investing in their future by ensuring their basic needs are met.
I urge each of you to contact your legislators and request that they vote in support of LD 167. Like many other states already have, Maine should pass legislation to outlaw food-shaming children. Maine’s children should not be expected to provide meals for themselves and should not be punished for their parents’ inability or unwillingness to provide meals for them.
Ashley McAllister of Bangor is a Master of Social Work student at the University of Maine in Orono.