For the second time in as many weeks, there has been a story in the news about students’ lunch accounts being overdrawn and lunches being thrown away. Luckily, this most recent story had a happy ending. That’s because Kenny Thompson in Houston, TX decided to do something about it. When he learned that children at the elementary school where he was a mentor and tutor were eating cold cheese sandwiches or going without lunch because they didn’t have enough money in their accounts to pay for a hot meal, he decided to pay off all of the overdrawn accounts—to the tune of $465.
I was overcome when I read about what Mr. Thompson had done for those children—because I used to be one of them. There was a time growing up when my family struggled financially. My brother and I qualified for the free or reduced lunch program—it was the only way my mom could afford for us to have lunch everyday. Though I was by no means the only person I knew of in the lunch program, I was terribly embarrassed. So I either chose to skip lunch, saying I just wasn’t hungry, or I secretly used what little money I had saved to pay for my own lunch so that my friends wouldn’t know the truth. It’s been 20 years, and I can still remember how embarrassed I felt and how scared I was that I would be found out.
I ache to think how those children must feel when their trays full of healthy, hot food are thrown away in front of them, their shame for something over which they have no control put on display. I am beyond thankful that that was not common practice when I was in school, and I pray that my girls never have to endure such cruelty.
We try to teach our children empathy and compassion for those less fortunate, but this is the model they are seeing at school from adults who are supposed to help set an example. And we wonder why we are noticing more and more behavioral and emotional problems in kids today. I would challenge any adult to walk away from a similar humiliation unscathed and with their self-confidence and self-esteem fully intact. I am 32 years old—I have years of cognitive and emotional development on my side, and I think it would still reduce me to tears. Just think about how children process that type of behavior when they might not have the skills necessary to understand it or deal with it. Think about how they may emulate it in the future because they think it’s acceptable.
I understand that schools are businesses, with budgets and policies just like any other business. But taking away a child’s food is not the way to address a parent’s financial issues. Contact the parent, document the debt and then eventually turn it over to a collections agency—just like any other business would do. There is a serious flaw in our society when an inmate is fed better than a third grader, and even more so when people think that is okay.
So thank you, Mr. Thompson, for showing us that not everyone can just look the other way while a child goes hungry or is publicly shamed in the name of “policy.” Thank you for showing us that there are still kind and compassionate people in the world. Thank you for serving as a role model for children and parents alike and showing us all what acceptable behavior truly looks like. Thank you for inspiring us to open our eyes—and to do something about what we see.