Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley West School District can’t seem to stay out of trouble. First, it got flagged for threatening families that owed money for their children’s school lunches with the foster-care system. It then turned down a number of offers from do-gooders and philanthropists to pay off all the debt, only backing down this week after yet another round of bad publicity.
The story was extreme, but the actual problem was not. It can seem as though barely a week goes by without news of some school district or other attempting to get tough on children whose parents or guardians can’t or won’t pay their lunch bill, a problem so prevalent that it now has a name: lunch shaming. There was Warwick, R.I., where students whose parents were in arrears were told they would receive only a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich, and Canaan, N.H., where a school cafeteria worker was fired after giving a student an $8 lunch when he didn’t have money in his account, and reports that school district workers in states including Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, Michigan and Utah tossed the lunches of students in the garbage when they realize that the students couldn’t pay for their tray of food.
The ongoing issues with school lunches are part and parcel of our better-but-not-great economy, the one where even as people feel increasingly confident about their personal finances, serious signs of trouble remain, including a growing number of people paying credit card bills after their due date, a record amount of outstanding student loan debt and almost 40 percent feeling so financially beleaguered that they say they would struggle to handle a $400 expense in an emergency.
But these school lunch scandals are also representative of increasing punishing callousness, harshness and brutality of American life. It starts at the top, where our billionaire president, one who inherited both his vast fortune and his connections, feels no shame at taking away food and housing subsidies for people in poverty, meanwhile making a sustained effort to do away with the Affordable Care Act, which would result in millions of people losing access to health care. Desperate migrants are corralled in concentration-camp-like holding facilities at the border, where children continue to be separated from their parents for spurious reasons. Unlike every other nation in the developed world, the United States does not mandate paid maternity leave. (A Republican proposal to offer that option to new mothers would offer them a portion of their wages — at the cost of potentially reducing their Social Security payments at retirement.) Life expectancy is falling.
Yet, remarkably, despite the meanness embedded in our society, Americans view themselves as a generous people. That’s likely because we give more to charity than almost every other first-world country. Whenever a local school district finds itself in the crosshairs of a school lunch scandal, numerous people often step up to offer to pay the outstanding bills. But, in truth, our giving nature is often exaggerated. Food banks routinely report they are in danger of running out of food. A large minority says the government has no responsibility for ensuring that everyone can access health care, and most crowdfunding campaigns to help people pay medical bills do not meet their goals. People who can’t make ends meet are immediately assumed to be wasting their limited funds on lattes and avocado toast, while food-stamp recipients are viewed with suspicion, with many convinced they are somehow guilty of living a lazy, louche life on the backs of more responsible taxpayers.
As for Wyoming Valley West School District, it won’t need to take money from millionaires and billionaires to pay children’s dining bills going forward. The district plans to begin offering all its students a free breakfast and lunch regardless of need or ability to do so, something it can do because of a federal program that pays for it if many students in the district live in poverty. Here’s hoping it can continue to do so. President Trump’s proposed federal budget, released in March, would have made significant cuts in the program. The administration is also considering redefining poverty in such a way that more than an estimated 100,000 children over the next decade would no longer qualify for a free or reduced-price meal at school. That’s hardly a happy ending.