If you don't know what lunch-shaming is, it's an all-too-common practice by schools intended to shame students or their parents for not being able to pay for school lunches (or having a debt built up).
States like California and New Mexico have either taken steps to ensure that all students get lunch or created laws that prevent lunch-shaming, but the problem is still prevalent nationwide and has existed for decades now.
Students deserve to eat, no matter their financial circumstance, period. And in order to shed light on why lunch-shaming shouldn't be allowed at ANY school nationwide, we asked members of the BuzzFeed Community to share their own lunch-shaming experiences with us. Here are their heartbreaking stories.
1. "This was back in the early '00s, but we were undocumented, my parents hardly spoke English, and I was in the red by $5. They threw out my pizza and gave me a plain peanut butter sandwich with water. I cried so much that the lunch ladies took pity on me and bought me the pizza, but not until after 100+ elementary school kids stared at me crying for 10 minutes."
2. "Each time I didn't have money on my lunch card, I was made to serve lunch to my classmates along with the other students who couldn't afford to eat. We then waited until the last student was served before we could serve ourselves. And if that wasn't bad enough, while the rest of the students got to enjoy recess after eating, we had to stay behind and wipe the cafeteria tables. Each of us was punished for our parents' financial situation, and in hindsight, I feel sad for little 7-year-old me."
3. "At my school, you had to line up at morning break on a Monday to pay for the week's lunches. There were two lines — one for paying cash/check, and one for registering for free school lunches — so everyone knew whose families were struggling."
4. "I've been teaching for 11 years. Thankfully, these last two years, school lunches have been free. I put money in student accounts if I knew their families needed one less thing to worry about. Kids weren't allowed to eat, get report cards, or check out books from the library if they owed money. When I got 'caught,' I was threatened with losing my certificate. I just started giving them cash their parents 'left in their folder.' Only in America. 😐"
5. "One day in first grade, I didn't have enough money in my account. I had already fixed my tray, made my way to the counter. I entered my lunch number and then the cashier took my tray back, said, 'No, go get a peanut butter and jelly,' while pointing. I had to go backward in line, walking past everyone behind me and stand again in front of the lunch ladies. Embarrassed and confused, I walked to my table empty-handed instead."
"I didn't eat lunch for almost the rest of my 12 years of school except for the crusts off my friends' sandwiches. It also took years for kid me to understand that I was denied because there was no money; I had no idea. Once I did, I was too ashamed to ask for money or how to add money, so I stayed hungry. I wished a teacher (who are underworked, underpaid, and so deserving godsends BTW) had noticed at any point."
6. "At my school, if we didn’t have money to buy a lunch, they would take away the food you already had on your plate and gave you two pieces of bread with a slice of Kraft cheese in the middle and a milk carton."
7. "In high school, you could put money onto your ID card to pay for your food. ... There were three lines: the line for kids adding money just because, the line for kids paying off debt on the card, and the line for kids who qualified for the program to get a weekly food allowance at school."
"Everyone knew your family's financial status. It was like having a label stamped on you...it felt beyond violating. I never ate at school because I never wanted to end up in any of those lines."
8. "My high school had this bank system where your parents could put money in, or you could pay cash on the day. Students didn’t have access, even if they were 18. If you didn’t have money either way, you might have been lucky enough to get hastily prepared free mystery sandwiches, but there were never enough, and they almost always caused an allergic reaction on 'accident.'"
"They also cut off the vending machines, citing unhealthy behavior because kids frequently used loose change to get lots of snacks rather than 'save up responsibly' to pay for a full meal. School policies were also implemented to prevent teachers from paying for student meals to avoid 'grooming behaviors,' and baked goods and bought snacks were not allowed in classrooms because of 'student allergies.' It was so bad it got to the point our district had to hire multiple police officers just to stop kids leaving campus to go buy food they actually wanted to eat."
9. "Not me, but I had a friend, and at her school they literally reserved tables for people who didn't get the priced lunches. There were free lunches, but if you got them, you couldn't sit with people who paid for it. It took them six MONTHS to stop this because they realized they were losing money because all the kids were getting the free lunches to sit with their friends."
10. "This was before the electronic lunch cards. My school handed out different-colored lunch tickets. Blue meant you paid full price, pink meant you got reduced prices, and yellow meant you got free lunches. Those different-colored lunch tickets were not necessary. This was awful because the kids who could pay full price would pick on the other kids who had a pink or yellow ticket."
11. "They didn’t throw out my food, but I had to wait until everyone was seated to sit down at a table. We had a combined cafeteria and auditorium in middle school. If you had lunch debt, you had to sit on the stage until everyone else was served to take a seat at one of the tables. One day, I tripped getting off of the stage and got food all over me. I started skipping lunch after that."
12. "We had to state our lunch status during roll call each morning. I had to say 'reduced' instead of 'present.' The options were 'cold,' 'hot,' or 'reduced' during roll call."
13. "My brother and I were one year apart and my mother usually would make sure her kids had money in their accounts. If my account was low, I would remind her, but on this occasion I did not know. I was in the lunch line just like any other kid and tried to buy my lunch for the day. I was told that I did not have any money and they contacted another lunch lady to take my food away. I cried so much — making a scene — because I could not comprehend as a second grader that I wasn't able to eat."
"I asked the lady how was that possible because I had money the day prior. What I found was that when my brother's account got low or empty, the lunch ladies would let him use my account to eat breakfast and lunch. We were on reduced lunch during this time, so I knew I should have enough at least for lunch. I was told that I previously used my account for the day and was charged over $1.50 for the additional meal. During this time, it's hard for a second grader to understand that although you didn't personally eat today, you can't have lunch. I would have thought there would be some empathy when there was evidence that It wasn't my fault, but I got none. I was given hard bread and peanut butter in a small cup with celery sticks. I remember sitting at my table crying and have people look at me because everyone knew what the 'bread' meal was. From my experience as a young kid, I had some anxiety with lunch because I wondered, would the same situation happen again or would I naturally not have any money? ... I'm 28 years old now. You don't always remember the good events in detail, but you always remember the moments in life that traumatized you vividly."
14. "I was given a position in a school district in Texas to manage an elementary school cafeteria. The director informed me that if a student was in arrears, I was to take the plate from them and deposit it into the trash and give the child an alternative lunch of a cold cheese sandwich."
"I refused to do so and was reprimanded for insubordination. Other managers at different campuses in the same district would get great joy out of humiliating the students that owed money and would brag about how many students they could make cry at monthly meetings. My way to fix the problem was to catch students up by paying out of my own pocket (on average $50–$75 weekly), to which the director again reprimanded me and told me I was not allowed to do, to which I informed her that once the money I earned was in my bank account, that she has no right to tell me what or whom I could spend it on. I lasted five years at that job, I miss the interaction with the students and the stories they would tell."
15. "My name was publicly called out in front of everyone in class along with the amount owed. It was totally unexpected and I was caught unaware. Very embarrassing as some classmates snickered in the background."
"When recess time came on the playground, I was teased mercilessly by some mates who didn't like me at all. What's worse, when I later told my mom, she didn't or couldn't pay it immediately because my parents were going through financial problems due to my dad losing his job. I was roughly 9 at the time."
16. "The basic lunch was $1. Milk was a quarter extra. Most students would give up their quarter to help a friend who forgot their dollar. But if you couldn't find the money, the school office made you call your parents and explain why you couldn't eat lunch that day. I never understood this."
"Why not send the parents a notice/bill at the end of the day to bring an extra dollar the next day? Not many parents were home during the day and they wouldn't have had time to make it to the school with the dollar in time for you to eat anyway. Having to sit in your assigned lunch seat without anything to eat was a terrible thing to do to a child."
17. "I wasn't lunch-shamed, but I saw kids get lunch-shamed when I worked as a lunch lady in an elementary school. Myself and the other ladies with whom I worked would often pool money to pay for the kids with delinquent accounts. Our boss would reprimand us if she caught us doing it and would rudely take the kids' lunch out of his/her hands and throw it in the trash."
"She would then hand the kid a cheese sandwich with a milk as a replacement lunch. The kids cried each time she did it. We of course would complain to our higher-ups but nothing would ever come of it. The kids would also be forced to sit by themselves during lunch if they had delinquent accounts. It was always the same kids who got shamed. It was the biggest reason I quit that job."
18. "In elementary school, it got to the point that one lunch lady was nice enough to let me slowly pay a quarter every meal to pay for something — but some days they would refuse me anything at all to eat. They would tell me every time in front of all my peers that my parents owed money and that’s why I wasn’t able to eat lunch that day. It may have been the reason I developed an eating disorder."
19. "I 'worked' in the cafeteria in elementary and junior high whenever possible because my family had trouble affording lunch. I would leave for lunch about 15 minutes early to help the lunch ladies set up and serve food, so that I could get a free meal. I enjoyed leaving class early, but other kids made fun of me for having to work during lunch. I felt like I had to do it to help my single mom not worry about if I was eating at school."