Deena Rubin: Applauds eliminating lunch-shaming in Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Thankfully, the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District is removing all shaming of students for not being able to pay for meals (“Lunch without shame,” June 23).

I know that this was not an easy decision, but in the long run this expenditure will pay off due to the well-being of the students at all levels. These meals will alleviate the shame that would run rampant throughout our community.

The situation across the country is shocking. When a student doesn’t have money to pay for a meal, some schools require cafeteria workers to take the child’s hot food tray away and throw it in the trash. The child gets a cold cheese sandwich instead, or they are forced to go hungry with no food at all.

The schools are using food to penalize their own students. In the worst cases the children who can’t pay are forced to have a stamp on their hands, stickers or wristbands that mark them as “I can’t pay for lunch.”

“No one believes we do this to kids,” said Jenny Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, a nonprofit that works to eliminate poverty. “It’s barbaric.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate recently introduced the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 to reduce these worst shaming practices.

As a child of a mother who lived in the Depression, I quickly learned that we must never waste food. Throwing away an entire meal instead of giving it to a hungry child is ludicrous. A cheese sandwich, vegetable and fruit each day does not provide the variety of nutrients that growing children need.

Marking these innocent kids for all to see brings up terrible thoughts of others who have been wrongly characterized. Tears flow when the children are treated in these ways.

Often the parents of the children and teens need help in completing the form that would get them on the free or subsidized meal program. The parents are the responsible parties for paying for these meals. The blame has been displaced onto the children and they in turn suffer from shame. The student didn’t do anything wrong and yet that student feels shame. The already suffering children know that all the kids in the cafeteria room know who gets that cheese sandwich and why.

The children who can’t pay feel shame. They may feel that they are inadequate, unimportant and undeserving. They know that they’re being observed and judged by others and blame themselves for it. Their self-esteem drops and inferiority comes from feeling shamed. Internalized shame can alter our self-image over time.

The way to heal from shame is to accept that others’ feelings and behavior have nothing to do with you. This is particularly hard for young people who have not developed the social skills to deal with the difficult emotion of shame. It is difficult for older teens because they are dealing with problems of adolescence including changing cognitive skills, hormonal levels, academic pressure and social issues of their own.

We should applaud Amherst-Pelham Regional School District’s choice for establishing emotionally stable meal opportunities in each of their schools. Benefits for students and their teachers will emerge throughout the school day.

Deena Rubin is an educator who lives in Amherst.