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What Should Schools Do When Kids Show Up Without a Lunch?

One of my least favorite tasks as a parent is food preparation, and I have always especially hated fixing school lunches. Messing with sticky lunchboxes and figuring out what to put in them at 11pm on weeknights just isn’t something I am ever going to like doing. But I know that instead of whining, I should be very grateful that I am able to provide schoolday lunches for my children at all – whether I prepare them myself or instead provide money for the cafeteria – because a great many families struggle to meet this daily need.

Almost all public schools in the U.S. offer some type of free or reduced cost lunch program for families who qualify, recognizing the simple fact that hungry kids can’t learn effectively. Some schools even provide free or reduced price breakfasts because their particular student populations are unlikely to have eaten well – or eaten anything – before arriving at school that morning.

In my own community, the Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee oversees an innovative and much-needed adjunct to publicly funded school meal programs. It’s called “Food for Kids,” and it provides backpacks full of nutritious, easy to prepare food for kids identified by their own teachers to take home so that they will have something to eat afterschool and on weekends, when school meals aren’t available. “Food for Kids” is also designed to help feed the younger siblings of these students, littler children who aren’t yet in school and thus, aren’t getting school meals.

Despite these programs – and other community-specific initiatives aimed at feeding kids at school –  some kids still show up at school each day with no lunch and no lunch money. And according to this story from MSNBC, that leaves school cafeteria workers in a conundrum. Apparently, many schools currently offer kids who show up without food or money an alternative lunch, consisting of something like a basic cheese sandwich and an apple. However, there is concern that these “special” lunches are stigmatizing to low-income children.

On the other hand, school administrators point out that they can’t afford to just give away full, hot lunches to any child who doesn’t have lunch that day. They say that if a child’s reason for coming to school without any lunch or lunch money is because their parents can’t afford to pay for food, the school needs to work with the parents to get their child enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. For kids who simply forget to bring lunch or money, the alternative lunches should be a welcome alternative to going hungry that day, and a reminder to remember what they need to bring to school each day.

My two older kids have certainly forgotten their lunches and/or lunch money more than once while attending their public school. At one point, my daughter did it several times in the same month, at which point a cafeteria worker told her that she needed to talk to her parents about signing up for the free lunch program. She was mortified, and immediately began doing a better job remembering to bring lunch. But the rest of the time the kids have forgotten, they were just out of luck. They went hungry that day. Apparently their school doesn’t offer the “alternative” lunch option for kids who come to the cafeteria empty-handed, and without being signed up for the free lunch program.

I do worry that some of the kids – particularly in elementary and middle school –  who come to school without lunch have parents who are too troubled in some way to take care of getting their children signed up for the free or reduced lunch program. Or, even if they can afford the food, these parents are unable to manage making sure that their children leave for school with lunch or lunch money. Kids with parents like these – perhaps parents who are suffering from mental illness or addiction –  may be too embarrassed to explain what’s really going on, even if a teacher or administrator asks.

So what do you think? How should schools manage this tricky issue? My first thought is that public school budgets should be designed to include a nutritious lunch at no charge (beyond the taxes their parents pay) to all students, regardless of income. I know, however, that schools can barely pay for what they are providing now, so the idea of universal free lunch is rather pollyanna-ish of me.

How does your child’s public school handle this issue? Do you believe that these “alternative” lunches are stigmatizing in a negative way? Talk about the issue of kids who come to school with no lunch in the comments below.


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