Op-Ed

We should be ashamed if any Fayette student is denied lunch

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I’d never heard of “lunch shaming” before a friend of mine posted an article about it on Facebook. Lunch shaming is the practice of withholding a hot meal from a child whose lunch account balance is overdue. Children who are lunch shamed are offered cheese sandwiches and milk as “alternative meals.”

Well, I thought, that case was in Texas, which might as well be an entirely different country. Surely we didn’t do this here in Fayette County, wealthy land of horse farms and bourbon. I contacted two friends intimately involved with Fayette County Public Schools, and both of them assured me this didn’t happen here. In Lexington, we feed kids, one of them said.

My fury that any school district, charged with the care of our children during the school day, would deny food to a hungry child, was calmed.

No matter what the reason the bill isn’t paid, it’s not the kid’s fault. How well can you learn when you’re hungry? Nutritionally satisfied kids will learn more, get better jobs, and make society a better place. For the hungry kid, the climb out of poverty becomes that much steeper.

Imagine my surprise at reading an article in this paper a couple of weeks later stating Fayette schools did in fact withhold hot meals from students whose accounts were in arrears. A school official said she couldn’t provide specific information on the number of times this happens, but said it wasn’t many. Once is too many.

While I appreciate efforts schools make to avoid lunch shaming, the bottom line is that no child in the school’s care should go hungry. The point of withholding a meal is to shame the child into forcing the parents to pay the bill. And remember, it’s not the “poor kids” who aren’t being fed. It’s the kids with working parents who make too much money to qualify for free lunches, yet not enough to pay $2.50 for a meal.

The fact that these kids don’t qualify for free lunches is the result of some bureaucrat somewhere drawing an invisible line in the sand above which kids aren’t eligible for them. It’s not a lack of need for assistance.

In addition, the school system has turned down financial donations to assist with unpaid lunch balances. A group of high-school kids in Florida recently offered $1,000 toward the unpaid fees and the school system didn’t accept the donation. Other donations had been offered throughout the year and the district hadn’t accepted those either, but it’s considering options to do so.

What’s to consider? Kids want to help other kids get a decent meal at school. Accept the money.

Other local school districts accept donations and many have chosen to offer a hot meal to every student, working with individual families on balances rather than lunch shame their students.

Why haven’t we figured this out?

Schools should provide a nutritious meal to every child. If community members and high school students want to assist with that we should jump at the chance. We should have already had a mechanism in place to accept these donations. We are lagging behind other school districts in feeding our kids.

The school system recently announced a plan to offer free lunches to students who qualify for reduced-priced meals. We should be proud of this effort. While this might reduce the number of children who are lunch-shamed, it won’t affect the kids who don’t qualify for assistance and it doesn’t change the policy itself.

If one child in Fayette County is lunch-shamed, that’s one too many. We can all do better by Lexington’s children. I’ve contacted Superintendent Manny Caulk and my school board representative to ask that they do better as well. I hope you will do the same.

Shelley Roberts Bendall lives in Lexington and can be reached at shelleyrbendall@gmail.com.

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