Wear a wristband if you can't pay for lunch? The dilemma of school lunch shaming.

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

  • 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. Sadly, it is the students 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. Even more strangely, the district claimed that 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.

Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

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.

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.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.