One Wednesday morning in February 2017 started as just another typical day at Killen Independent School District in Central Texas. Around 20 pre-kindergarten kids followed their teacher, Kelvin Holt, into the cafeteria eager to receive the most important meal of the day: breakfast.
Within the group was a 4-year-old Latina girl. Tentatively, she approached the lunch line with the other children. But then she slowly shuffled her way from the middle of the line towards the back. Holt thought her behavior was unusual, but as soon as the little girl came to the cashier, he suddenly realized what was going on.
Substitute teacher Holt had seen and experienced a multitude of things in his lifetime. For a start, he’d served in the U.S. Army for over three decades. The former soldier had performed a number of jobs in the army, too, including being a medic and a mechanic. When he retired, then, Holt decided he still wasn’t ready to stop helping others. And so he began teaching special education in Texas.
And yet on this particular Wednesday, Holt was in disbelief at what happened once his young student eventually reached the front of the line. The food on her tray amounted to $1.50, and so the little girl passed her lunch card to the cashier. But after the lunch lady informed the girl that she had no money, she proceeded to do something inexplicably cruel.
According to Holt, the lunch lady snatched the little girl’s carton of milk from her and, in front of all the other students, threw the rest of her food in the garbage. “It was heart wrenching,” Holt told the Texas Observer. “It took me a while to even process what the heck had happened.”
With no food to eat, the four-year-old walked away sobbing and took her seat in the cafeteria. And to make matters worse, throughout the entire ordeal other students laughed and taunted her while tucking into their delicious breakfasts. Holt couldn’t help but feel immensely sorry for his young student. And he had no change with which to pay for the meal himself.
Sadly, though, this incident is not unique to this little girl. In fact, it seems scenarios such as this one are a growing problem in the U.S. Indeed, the cruel phenomenon, known as “lunch shaming,” has been sweeping across both Texas and the country.
In fact, lunch shaming occurs throughout most of America’s districts, with the exception of a few areas that supply free school meals. It happens when young students use up all of their prepaid food credit before their parents get a chance to top up their card. Consequently, the children accrue debts.
The districts then allow a certain amount of time in which the debt can be squared. This can range from a day to a number of weeks. But if the debt isn’t paid by then, there are penalties. These can include giving children alternative meals, such as a sandwich or, as in this case, nothing at all.
In other districts, like Alabama, children have had the phrase “I need lunch money” actually stamped across their arms. And in some schools, children are even made to scrub the canteen tables in front of their classmates.
So although Holt was initially angry at the cashier for treating the little girl that way, he knew that “lunch shaming” was actually a national problem. As a result, he planned his own retribution. Yes, Holt began a petition, calling on others to help change the law that allowed schools to remove meals from hungry children.
Holt’s petition called for others to “address the issue locally” and to contact their children’s schools and other local schools to inquire about their nutrition policies. He then encouraged the individuals to confront unsatisfactory schools on social media and demand change.
However, it’s not just children who are affected by lunch shaming. No, the problem can also deeply affect the adults who are encouraged to participate. One cafeteria employee from Pittsburgh, for example, decided to quit her job rather than refuse children food. Others, meanwhile, have handed over their own money rather than see a student go hungry.
Sharon Schaefer, a former high school chef, told The New York Times that one cashier at a school in Omaha had also quit over the school’s nutritional policy. This particular school maintained that if children didn’t have enough money for food, then they couldn’t have a meal at all.
And it emerged that this particular member of staff had been paying for students’ meals in secret until she herself had run out of money. However, this employee wasn’t the only one prepared to put their livelihood on the line to help lunch-less children. Indeed, people outside of some schools are offering to pay for the students’ meals rather than have them go hungry.
Others, meanwhile, have put out pleas on social media asking for financial help. Some schools have even managed to obtain private donations. Nevertheless, the majority of districts have accumulated thousands, and in some cases, millions of dollars worth of debt in uncollected lunch credit.
As a result, school nutrition officials have been looking into alternative means of revenue in order to clear some of the debt. Some have used the profits from full-priced food products, and texts and emails have also been sent out to those in debt. Other schools, meanwhile, are taking more drastic action to obtain the money they are owed, including employing the help of debt collectors.
And so when Holt sent out his petition, the signatures began to roll in. Indeed, the veteran school teacher managed to collect over 113,000 names in support of his endeavor. And now, thanks to teachers and parents like him, laws regarding lunch shaming are currently being reviewed.
Hopefully, the new laws will offer more support and guidance for parents, including information surrounding free school meals. And one particular bill, put forward by Texas Representative Helen Giddings, even proposed a ban on lunch shaming. Fortunately, the House of Representatives passed the bill in May 2017.
Giddings has also preemptively been raising money so that schools have some financial support to fall back on if debts begin to build. However, the hard work is not over. In fact, Texas is only the second state – behind New Mexico – to pass legislation such as this. So until such laws come into place, little girls everywhere will have to hope that they have someone to rescue them, like this little girl did.