Baltimore Sun file photo of a school lunch. Lunch shaming is one way food is being used to demonize the poor.
Baltimore Sun file photo of a school lunch. Lunch shaming is one way food is being used to demonize the poor. (GLENN FAWCETT / Baltimore Sun)

In a country as wealthy as America, a basic necessity, food, has become the latest weapon to demonize the poor.

Just look at the response from officials in one Pennsylvania school district to parents who didn’t give their child lunch money. They sent letters threatening to send the kids to the foster system for neglect. The children and youth services division had to intervene and thwart that ridiculous effort and remind the system that children are best left with mom and dad when possible, and poverty is not an indication of bad parenting, according to a CNN report.

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Now our president wants to kick 3 million people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, or food stamps. A proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would change the criteria for who qualifies for food aid could also mean that 265,000 kids would no longer qualify for free school lunches either.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue said the changes could save $2.5 billion a year and weed fraud from the system. But how many people, including children, will go hungry? Aren’t there better ways to balance the budget than treating people so inhumanely? How about getting rid of the lucrative tax breaks that the Trump administration happily put in place to line the pockets of the country’s wealthy. Or maybe abandoning that idea of a new border wall to keep out certain undocumented immigrants. Instead, our executive branch would rather take from those who need it most.

Food has in essence become symbolic of the lack of compassion some in our country have for the neediest citizens. From incarcerating parents who can’t afford to pay child support, to the creation of modern day debtors prisons in some states, there is no sympathy for people struggling to make ends meet.

Schools in particular are supposed to be safe spaces for students. For instance, it’s a place where poor kids can go to escape violence in their neighborhoods. It is also where many students get their only meal of the day.

Instead of punishing kids for something they have no control over — the lot they were give in life — maybe school systems should be looking for ways to make sure kids have access to healthy meals. (Not all kids who are hungry qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program or their parents don’t know to sign up.) Plenty of evidence and research supports the notion that when students don’t get proper nutrition they don’t perform as well in school. That’s where educators should put their focus, not on bean counting. Why not open food banks in schools or partner with local businesses and non-profits to help pay for kids’ meals?

The “lunch shaming” schools are engaging in is nothing more than institutionalized bullying. And there are plenty of stories that show it happens more often than many would think. One high school in Minnesota even planned to ban kids from graduation because of debts.

There was a time when the federal government had more compassion. Schools in low-income areas can opt into a program created several years ago under the agricultural department that allows them to serve breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of income level, at no cost. These districts, including Baltimore City Public Schools, which began participating in 2015, are reimbursed for meals based on their level of poverty.

That doesn’t go far enough. If we are to truly stop the humiliation kids are made to feel when they can’t afford the basic necessity of food, federal aid needs to be made available to all schools. After all, there are low-income students in all schools.

In a better world, the country would easily adopt measures like those outlined in legislation introduced last month by Rep. Illhan Omar and Sen. Tina Smith, both Democrats from Minnesota. The proposal would allow all schools to get federal reimbursement for unpaid lunch meals. This would help schools deal with the financial issues that arise when they have to absorb the costs of unpaid lunches and treat kids more humanely.

The bill would also ban the shaming practices that single out kids who don’t have the money for lunch. No more wristbands or stamps or naughty lists that identify these children. Schools would also be forbidden from deploying debt collectors after the parents to recoup money they likely don’t even have. These are all ideas worth adopting.

Thankfully, there are still people who realize the heartlessness of letting people go hungry. Many have stepped up to pay the tab of unpaid meals when lunch shaming is publicized. It’s too bad not all the schools accept such offers. We hope they somehow find compassion in their hearts to change their way of thinking.

Simply put, it is intolerable that in America — where grocery stores, restaurants and households throw out pounds upon pounds of food on any given day — that anyone should worry about having enough to eat.

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