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The Moral Abomination of Lunch Debt


Late yesterday after facing intense backlash, Warwick Public Schools in Erik’s beloved Rhode Island reversed a previously announced decision to only serve sun butter (which I didn’t know was a thing until now) and jelly sandwiches to students as young as kindergarten who had outstanding lunch debt.

It is worth thinking about the moral abomination that inheres in the term “lunch debt.” Nutrition is necessary for a person’s physical and emotional well-being. It is instrumental to the educational needs of developing children. It should be understood as a basic human right for everyone, regardless of age. That it is not is still another reminder of why capitalism sucks.

The shaming of children for not being able to pay for lunch is one of the American educational systems’ dirtiest secrets:

Matt Antignolo has worked in public school cafeterias for 24 years.

He’s learned two key truths: Just about every kid loves pizza, and an alarming number of American youngsters still can’t afford a $2.35 lunch, despite the dramatic expansion of free and reduced lunch programs.

When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many districts, including Antignolo’s, take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk. Some schools take away their lunch entirely.

“It’s the worst part of the job. Nobody likes it,” says Antignolo, who’s now director of food services at the Lamar Consolidated District outside Houston.

All the other kids in the lunch line know what’s going on. Getting that brown bag is the lunch line equivalent of being branded with a Scarlet Letter. It’s been dubbed “school lunch shaming.”

It happens across the country: 76% of America’s school districts have kids with school lunch debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. The horror stories keep coming. In 2015, a Colorado cafeteria worker says she was fired for personally paying for a first grader’s meal. Last year, a Pennsylvania lunch lady quit in protest after being forced to take food away from a student who was $25 in debt.

The fact that people have to resort to GoFundMe campaigns and similar stopgap, individualized efforts to solve the problem is an unbelievable indictment of the government. (This is a pre-Trump problem, once again reinforcing my hatred of the “America is Already Great” slogan–a hatred many commenters in turn seemed to hate.)

The Warwick story is the second time in a week that lunch debt has been in the headlines. Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, recently donated $8,000 in her son’s memory in order to erase the lunch debt of high school seniors at a school in Minneapolis in order to prevent the school from withholding their diplomas as punishment for the debt.

It is worth knowing that the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, from which Valerie Castile drew the funds to pay the debt, was not intended for this. The PCRF was founded in the wake of Castile’s killing by police as a foundation that would help families who have suffered the loss of loved ones from gun violence. (More on the foundation here.) Valerie Castile made the decision to cancel the senior’s debt because she saw it as a moral imperative in line with how her son lived his life:

Valerie Castile told NPR, “The kids shouldn’t have a debt hanging over their heads, and the parents shouldn’t either. I just believe that the schools should furnish free meals for our children.”

“Most people are living paycheck to paycheck, and before you get that paycheck in your hand, it’s already been taxed. … I think they should let these children eat a free meal because that may be the only meal they have for the day,” she continued.

I guess maybe it makes sense, though, that a foundation to help victims of violence would be involved in trying to alleviate the burdens of lunch debt. State violence stole Philando Castile’s life. Taking children’s lunches away, or giving them shitty sunflower-seed-butter sandwiches that don’t give them the nutrition they need, is not the same type of state violence, but it’s also a version of state violence. Sometimes they kill you with a gun; most of the time they drain you over time.

The Panthers were telling us fifty years ago that this was oppression.

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