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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.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

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