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The dilemma of school lunch shaming

A recent incident in Rhode Island highlights the ongoing problem of student debt.

Children in the Buxton summer recreational program eat lunch at a cafeteria at Buxton Center Elementary School in Buxton on Thursday, July 12, 2018. About 1 in 5 children in Maine struggle with hunger and more summer meal programs are starting across the state to keep children fed when they're not in school.

Staff photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
  • Students in the Warwick school district were informed that unpaid debts would result in cold sandwiches for lunch.
  • An uproar ensued from irate parents and celebrities, accusing the district of lunch shaming.
  • 76 percent of American school districts currently have school lunch debt.

As of 2019, American borrowers owe $1.5 trillion in student debt loans. A total of 44.7 million citizens, over 13 percent of the population, are struggling to pay college and postgraduate loans, making student debt forgiveness a leading Democratic issue in the 2020 presidential race. They're not the only students feeling this pain. In Rhode Island, one school district has resorted to a form of public shaming to try to collect. In this case, it is grade school kids who pay the price.

As the district's Facebook post reads,

"In accordance with Warwick School Committee Policy EFB; Effective Monday, May 13, 2019, if money is owed on a paid, free, or reduced lunch account a sun butter and jelly sandwich will be given as the lunch choice until the balance owed is paid in full or a payment plan is set up through the food service office."

In a response post — the initial post made national headlines, prompting further explanation — the district claims its outstanding lunch debt is $77,000, with 78 percent of the debt coming from students not enrolled in the district's Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

This story, it should be noted, has a happy ending — for now. The media attention made its way to Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya, who paid off the bulk of the debt himself. A GoFundMe page has also raised over $57,000, with much of that money coming in over the last week.

Students Face ‘Lunch Shaming’ Over Unpaid Meals | For The Record | MSNBC

The path to debt liquidation is suspect. In January, a local businesswoman attempted to donate $4,000 to help pay it off; she had set up donation jars at two area diners. Administrators balked, claiming it wouldn't be fair to pay off the debt of some students and not others. The district also claimed that some parents would be upset if their child's lunch was being paid for.

This story is layered, however. The district can't take all the blame. Last year, Rhode Island announced that it was $346,000 in debt due to unpaid school lunches. At least in Warwick, the predominant amount of this debt came from families not enrolled in financial assistance. Of course, we don't know every family's situation, but some amount of parental negligence adds fuel to this fire.

The district with the most outstanding debt is Providence, which also has the distinction of being third on the list of cities with the greatest income inequity. The problem is so bad that in 2017, officials installed "giving meters" around the city to curb panhandling. This fact highlights the root of the problem, well beyond the bill for a slice of pizza.

Elementary and high schools across the nation are struggling to pay bills. Seventy-six percent of school districts in America currently have school lunch debt. One district reportedly has a $4.7 million debt. Under current federal guidelines, a family of four earning less than $31,400 is eligible for free lunch, while those families earning roughly $45,000 benefit from reduced lunch fees. As of 2016, 20 million students in America were receiving free lunches.

Maden Murray, 4, and her sister, carrot Davan Murray (who just turned 6) pass out plates, with a message attached urging timely passage of a school nutrition bill, to Senate staffers arriving for work at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Photo credit: Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly / Getty Images

While educational institutions need to not only survive but thrive, the responses by schools, such as cutting off lunches for children or, in the case of Warwick, threatening to take away hot meals, is not an answer. Making students who don't pay their lunch bill wear wristbands is the most egregious policy imaginable. Or maybe the most egregious is an Alabama school stamping a smiley face with the plea, "I need lunch money" on the student's arm.

Grade school is hard enough without being singled out because of your family's financial troubles. If this at all seems like a global issue, it's not. Many other countries know how to properly educate and feed students. As research shows, America has been lagging behind in education rankings for years.

Lunch debt is a symptom of the growing problem of education budget cuts. In 2015, a total of 29 states provided less funding for school districts than in 2008. Teacher strikes are becoming a regular occurrence. In January, over a half-million students in Los Angeles were affected by a week-long strike, which fortunately ended in the teachers' favor. Not all districts are so fortunate.

That educators need to strike at all is indicative of the many problems schools are facing: shrinking arts and physical education budgets, teachers forced to buy student supplies, an incessant focus on charter schools, and, of course, the recent college admissions scandal. The national political focus is trained on left versus right, but the real struggle is income equality that favors the wealthiest, who believe they can purchase favors at the expense of everyone else.

With the money donated in Warwick, students should be covered for a few years. Most districts won't receive this much attention. Until income inequality is properly addressed, through legislation and regulations, sun butter and jelly it is for students around the nation, who show up to be educated and instead are handed a lesson in the consequences of unfettered capitalism.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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