This is What Happens When Schools Take Away Lunch From Kids

This is what happens when schools take kids' lunch - school lunch policy

When I was seven years old my parents gave me money on a loaded lunch card for school lunches. I loved chicken nugget day. The smell of baking chicken would fill the school halls and I would ask for bathroom breaks just so I could sniff the air right before lunch.

My parents never missed a payment and were diligent in sending me to school with money to refill my card.

They never missed a payment.

Halfway through my second-grade-year, chicken nugget day rolled around and I took my usual private stroll down the hall to the girl’s bathroom to smell the air in silence. After returning to the classroom the lunch bell rang and my class gathered their lunch cards and walked single file to the cafeteria. I gathered my tray and milk together, walked through the line like everyone else and handed my card to the lunch-lady everyone called “Grandma.” She swiped, “Your card is empty, girl.”

Being seven years old and having little to no concept of money I looked up at her and asked her what it meant. “It means your parents didn’t load your card for lunch and you’ll have to give your lunch back.” I became panicked, afraid, and obviously starving. “But what will I eat for lunch then?” I asked cautiously. “You’re gonna have to clean some tables, then you’ll get a peanut butter sandwich with some water.”

“You’re gunna have to clean some tables, then you’ll get a peanut butter sandwich with some water.”

Where’s the nutrition in that?

I watched as “Grandma” took away my tray and dumped it into the garbage. My eyes welled up with tears, and I held back any gasping noises I felt in the back of my throat as she handed me a dirty cloth and told me to wipe the empty spots. With tears streaming down my face I walked from table to table wiping off empty spots with my stomach growling. I didn’t understand why I was being punished or why they were throwing perfectly edible food away. My friends asked me if I was okay and I shook my head as the smell of their food filled my nose.

lunch shaming

I finished cleaning tables and walked back over to “Grandma” and handed her my rag. Taking the rag from my hands and tossing it into semi-clear water, she told me to wait on the wall. Another woman came walking out of the kitchen and handed me a dixie cup of water and a dry peanut butter sandwich tossed into a paper tray.

Full of shame, I walked to the table where my friends had gotten up and finished their lunch and sat down alone. As I was choking down my disappointment of a lunch, “Grandma” walks over to me as children file out of the cafeteria and onto the playground, “Here, I forgot to give you this.” Thinking it was some sort of fruit maybe, she stamped my arm, “ATTN PARENTS: Send lunch money.”

She stamped my arm, “ATTN PARENTS: Send lunch money.”

She walked away and I cried again. I tossed my half eaten lunch into the garbage and walked back to my classroom. My teacher was sitting at her desk when she noticed my red nose and puffy eyes. She didn’t ask what was wrong because she already knew by the stamp shamefully placed on my arm. She hugged me as I cried in her arms, feeling the pang of not only hunger but utter shame.

She gave me a granola bar, “I keep snacks in the classroom in case something like this happens.  It’s going to be okay.”

Peeling back the wrapper I stared out the window onto the playground where Tacoma rain clouds began to cover the school. The bell rings and the day goes on.


This incident happened in 1996. It’s more than 20 years later and the same thing happens to kids across the country. This practice in school lunchrooms is demeaning and wasteful. As a parent now myself, I know what to do to ensure my child always has a full belly and a warm heart, but what do we do about those who can’t afford lunch?

Don’t let them go through the same shame I and thousands of other kids across the country have gone through.  Donate to No Kid Hungry and take up arms with your school district’s cafeteria and lunch policy.

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Sarah is the co-founder of Travel Foodie Mom, The Blonde Spot, and podcast host for Monday Morning Mimosas and Nerd Biscuit (coming soon). She believes life is better when you can embrace and she does just that.

4 thoughts on “This is What Happens When Schools Take Away Lunch From Kids

  1. Thankfully, some things have changed in Tacoma since then. I have 2 kids that have graduated, a 7th grader, and a 2nd grader. My second grader takes a lunch every day but does like to buy breakfast occasionally, so I load a card for him. He came home just last week and said he shared his lunch with his friend when his card was empty and they gave the child a dry bun with a piece of American cheese on it and a milk. Funny thing is, they still charge the lunch card and put it at a deficit when they hand out a paltry lunch like that. They did that to my middle schooler anyway when it happened once or twice when he was in elementary. He always speaks of the dry on that anyone in that predicament suffered. It was common enough that all the kids knew the deal. Parents will still have to pay the balance, even though their kid got that paltry meal. Fortunately, free and reduced price lunch eligibility entitles children for free breakfast daily in our district, and reduced price is only 40 cents for lunch. If you don’t qualify, lunch in elementary is $2.75. For my middle schooler, who does enjoy buying lunch, it is $3 a day for lunch. If for some reason he needs to get a lunch and his card does not have money, they will let him over draw the card two meals worth. It’s more likely to happen to a full price paying family as the card gets depleted more quickly than a reduced price. When my 2 older kids were in school and before the online payment portal that started at least 10 years ago now, the lunch lady automatically stamped their hands whenever their lunch card was getting low, that was the ever so dignified notice to parents. Nowadays, they have recognized hand stamping as shaming and we get emails with notification when the lunch card is low.

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