Teacher Takes Stand On 'Lunch Shaming'

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Lunch Shaming may be a relatively new term, but it is a widespread practice that has a far reaching history within the country’s education system.

The terminology, Lunch Shaming, is used to describe the practice of singling out students whose parents owe a delinquent balance to the individual school district. These students are stigmatized during lunch in an attempt to force their parents to provide money for their meals, through a variety of methods including being given an alternative (lesser) meal than their peers.

Other methods include students having their hands branded with stickers or stamps, made to perform manual labor in the cafeteria, or even being denied the opportunity to eat during the school day.

Opponents of Lunch Shaming consider the practice a form of adult-bullying and school-sanctioned humiliation of students for something that they have no control over – their parents’ ability to pay for their meals.

In 2014, the Department of Agriculture published a report showing that almost half of all school districts in the country practice lunch shaming. Nationally, the state of New Mexico was the first to bring light to and later end the practice of lunch shaming in their state. Illinois has subsequently followed suit to end the practice in the state’s school districts. One local teacher is on a mission to end the practice on a national level, once and for all.

“The reason I feel drawn to take this on is that there is no law as to what a district can do to a child when it comes to Lunch Shaming. You can basically do whatever you want to them with no thought of the emotional, psychosocial or even academic repercussions of the practice,” said Zach Wygal, a special education teacher at Hillsboro Junior High School. “I was taking a summer school class at the University of Edwardsville, while working on my masters degree, titled Poverty in Education, and one of the topics we studied was lunch shaming. I had never heard the term before but as soon as we started discussing it I immediately recognized the practice.”

After learning more about the practice, Wygal was compelled to change the trajectory of his studies from “Curriculum and Instruction” to “Diversity and Equity in Education.’’ - At that time lunch shaming was still practiced in Illinois. His capstone project, “Feelings and Perceptions of Students That Were Lunch Shamed,” detailed the long-term impacts of lunch shaming on students. It was through his in-depth research of the topic that he discovered that the impacts of lunch shaming are most often felt by students who live on the verge of poverty (not those already living in poverty) whose families do not qualify for free or reduced lunches, or whose parents won’t turn in the necessary paperwork for them to receive the aid; working class families that live from paycheck to paycheck who struggle to afford basic essentials like housing, food and clothing, but whose income falls over the poverty line threshold. Though any student, regardless of socioeconomic class, can fall victim to lunch shaming if their balance is negative.

Wygal’s action-resource project for his masters degree focused on the impact of lunch shaming on students: emotional implications such as food insecurity, increased bullying, shame, depression and being ostracized, as well as physical implications and how they negatively affect the students ability to learn. As such, he needed to collect data that correlated the practice to detrimental effects across a spectrum of ages and locations. With the help of the university, and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Redditt, Wygal was able to crowd-source for case study participants who had personal experiences with Lunch Shaming.

“Not only were people agreeing to participate, they just wanted to tell their stories – and there are a lot of them,” said Wygal. “The participants ranged in location from New York to Arizona, and even Montgomery County. One student described his school’s ‘three strikes’ program, where they would give him a bologna or cheese sandwich three times and then he couldn’t eat in the cafeteria for the rest of the year without money. This was a student who would consistently fall asleep in class due to lethargy from lack of food (both in and out of school) and was heavily bullied as a result. It made him not want to go to school. Another participant described her school’s practice of allowing students to grab a meal tray and then throwing it away in front of them and their peers when they got to the register. She went on to share an experience where she gave a small amount of money to a friend to buy food for her, because even with money she would not be allowed to buy a lunch until her balance was paid off, and a lunch supervisor saw the friend give her food and immediately confiscated it and threw it in the trash despite it being paid for. The commonality in all of the stories I heard was the guilt they felt over the lack of money to purchase food and their shared feelings that they (as children) were doing something wrong, when in actuality they were just caught in the middle. An elementary or junior high school student cannot legally go out and get a job to pay for their lunches. The practice of Lunch Shaming is essentially an overlooked form of systemically penalizing poverty.”

The State of Illinois voted to end the practice of Lunch Shaming half-way through Wygal’s masters program, which motivated him to keep the conversation going in order to end the practice on a national level. There are currently two bipartisan bills, one sitting in the House (HR #2311) and one sitting in the Senate (S #1119), both titled “The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2019.” One of the ways Wygal is attempting to keep the conversation on Lunch Shaming going is through a website he and a few trusted cohorts, Chris Reynolds and Lesley Pollard, built, www.endlunchshaming.com. The website gives a brief synopsis of the practice, as well as personal testimonials from people who experienced Lunch Shaming as children. It also features a user-friendly page for residents of states that still practice Lunch Shaming to easily contact the legislators that sit on the committees where these bills are being discussed. There is even a copy-and-paste prompt for those that don’t want to formulate their own message (www.endlunchshaming.com/take-action-1).

“We are asking the constituents of states that still practice Lunch Shaming to contact their legislators. We aren’t demanding that they end the practice immediately – we understand that there has to be a financial answer for schools to afford to feed these students as well - we just want them to keep talking about it, because if it continues to be discussed someone will figure out a way to feasibly get rid of the practice. To paraphrase one of Illinois’ state legislators when the practice was still up for debate here, ‘let the kids eat and let the adults figure out how to pay for it.”’      

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