West Michigan Superintendent Speaks Out Against "Lunch Shaming"

Controversial practice of "lunch shaming" is being criticized by some superintendents in West Michigan.

ALLEGAN, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) – A controversial approach to dealing with student lunch debt has Allegan Superintendent Kevin Harness appalled.

“As a parent and as a human being, it makes me cringe to think those types of policies are in place,” Harness said.

Harness is joining a growing number of critics across the U.S. criticizing some school districts who some say are singling out students who are consistently not paying for lunch. The controversial practices have been dubbed “lunch shaming” by some.

Recently in Pennsylvania, a former cafeteria worker says she was told to throw away the meals of students who hadn’t paid up, and in Arizona, a school was criticized for stamping the hands of children who didn’t pay with the words, “lunch money.”

The USDA now requires all school districts to submit comprehensive lunch charge policies, in part because of the criticism stemming from “lunch shaming” tactics.

“I don’t know why you would ever want those practices in place,” Harness said.

Harness added that Allegan and other school districts in West Michigan take an opposite approach, using technology to make it impossible to see who is qualifying for free lunches or who owes money to school districts for failing to pay for lunch.

“In the past, some students might have had a different color card or something visible that would designate they’re receiving a free or reduced lunch, but now it’s all done electronically, so the stigma has gone away,” he said.

As for the students who may owe lunch money to the school district, Allen says the district would never single any students out.

“If they’re getting behind on their lunch account, we send them a reminder email or letters to the parents, it’s not the students fault,” Allen emphasized, speaking about the district’s strategy for dealing with lunch debt.

“The impact on the general fund budget, is negligible, if anything at all,” he added.

Allen also says Allegan Public Schools has been fortunate enough to have a private donor step forward and pay off the lunch debt, something he says is happening in other districts as well.

Newschannel 3 did not find any instances of “lunch shaming” in West Michigan School Districts, but policies for handling unpaid lunch debt do differ.

For example, in Allegan, after four days of unpaid lunches, students are offered an alternative meal consisting of a sandwich, fruit or vegetable and milk.

At one South Haven middle school, however, a similar alternative lunch is given to students after five days of unpaid lunches.

Overall, many students in the U.S. do qualify for free or reduced lunches, while others fall just short of qualifying.

Allegan’s Superintendent says approximately 50% of the students in Allegan qualify for free/reduced lunches.

“We’re higher than some but there are other districts who have approximately 80 or 90 percent qualifying,” he said. “So we’re somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.”

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