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'Lunch shaming' banned in cafeterias in Washington state

Flickr Photo/USDA (CC BY 2.0)/
FILE: Schools lunches at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia on Wednesday, October 19, 2011.

Last fall Giovanni Inton's second-grade son came home from school and told his dad he was hungry.

So Inton asked what all parents ask: “What did you guys have for lunch?”

A piece of bread and a carton of milk, his son answered. “They took my lunch away. I guess you guys didn’t pay.”

It was a paperwork error. His son's lunch account had run out and Inton added money that day.

Issaquah School District's policy does state this is the alternative meal given to students with insufficient funds. 

Throwing away the lunches of students who can't pay is part of a practice called lunch shaming. Sometimes schools will stamp a student's hand or pin a note to their shirt. 

Inton still doesn't know why the district didn't call or email him first.

“I was pretty mad,” he said, “We didn’t get proper notification. And second of all, it’s like you took the kid’s lunch already. He’s a second grader; so at that time he’s seven-years-old. So all he knows is that he did something wrong and his food is being taken away from him. It’s like a punishment.”

Lunch shaming has now been outlawed in Washington state. Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill Tuesday that forces schools to reach out to parents without burdening kids. And schools won't be able to throw away trays of food.

State Rep. Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds) sponsored the bill and talked to KUOW's Kim Malcolm about lunch shaming and the new law

"It's tough enough being a kid, we think, in the lunchroom, so this is one of those extra steps that I think we can do something to alleviate," he said. 

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Interview Highlights", "style": "wide"}]]On why some schools use hand stamps when a lunch account is out of funds

This is a way to make sure that the kid remembers to tell the parent. But I think, especially with today's technology, it's a lot easier for the school district to reach out to those parents directly and not get that kid stuck in the middle.

On why lunch shaming happens in schools

This is something they think they need to do to make sure that they're paying for these lunch debts. We all know that schools run really tight budgets. And so some of these lunch debts can start to build up.

Why isn't the free or reduced cost program enough?

I think there are often people that are right on the margins. So it might be that there's a family that they don't qualify for a reduced price lunch, but then maybe the car breaks down, maybe they're sick, maybe they're taking care of a sick relative.

So suddenly that income dips down below the line, but they're not familiar enough with the system to go in and fill out the paperwork and do what they need to do. So again this legislation directs the school districts to do that outreach to these families and see if they actually will qualify.

What does the bill do?

You will no longer be allowed to make a student scrape his meal into the garbage and give them an alternate meal. You will not be able to stamp their hand or put a band around their wrist, things like that. You will not be able to have a public conversation with that child.

What it does allow [schools] to do is you can you can send a note home with the child, especially if the child is over 15.

And of course the school can also do more proactive outreach.

Year started with KUOW: 2013
Year started with KUOW: 2015