She was far more upset than she was letting on. She didn’t want her bundle of joy to see how angry she truly was.
She tried to keep her cool and get the two of them home. Once there, she took a deep breath and looked at her son’s arm. She could see the marks easily once he rolled up his sleeve. They were going to pay for this.
Tara Chavez had researched all the schools in the area of Phoenix before she had decided on Desert Cove Elementary.
Her son Cayden, was a sensitive soul and she wanted to make sure that he would be treated accordingly. With good-sized classes and a focus on children’s well being, Desert Cove Elementary seemed like they’d treat him well.
Tara felt satisfied that Desert Cove Elementary would be a good fit for her son, so she filled out the paperwork and promptly enrolled him.
Little did she know, the school was about to do something that would make her sorely regret her decision and cause controversy online. It wouldn’t be long before other parents were speaking out, too.
After a full term at the school, everything seemed to be going swimmingly, until it suddenly didn’t.
Little Cayden excelled in his studies, made a lot of new friends and loved all his teachers. But, as Tara and her husband were about to find out, the teachers weren’t the ones who they needed to keep an eye on.
As usual, Tara picked Cayden up from school. But when she saw his face, she knew that something was deeply wrong. Her thoughts immediately flew to bullying, and her blood began to boil.
Regaining her composure, she cheerily asked Cayden how his day had been. She had to get to the bottom of this, now.
Cayden replied with a tense “fine,” and resumed gazing out the window. Tara gently asked if something had happened at school, but he didn’t answer.
Understanding that he didn’t want to talk about it, she decided to give him space and continue with the conversation later with her husband. Then, she saw a jarring mark on his arm.
Tara craned her neck over to try to see what was on her son’s arm. At first, she thought it looked like dirt, but the closer she looked, the more she began to think otherwise.
Whatever had made her son unhappy today was due to that mark – she just knew it. And she was about to be proven right.
Tara’s mind became full of suspicions. But instead of demanding that Cayden show her his arm, she decided to focus on the road and deal with the issue when they got home.
She gripped the wheel until her knuckles turned white, trying not to let Cayden see just how upset she was. Whoever did this was going to pay.
When they arrived home, Cayden headed straight towards his room, but Tara stopped him. She called her husband, pulled out a chair and invited Cayden to take a seat. Her husband playfully caught Cayden and perched him on the seat.
Tara asked him to show them his arm. He looked down as he lifted up his sleeve. And there it was. What the school did to him. Plain as day.
“I asked if he was given a choice”, and he said, ‘No, she just grabbed my wrist and put the stamp on,’” the angry mom explained in an interview.
The mark was ink. But he hadn’t written on his own arm. His father looked closer until he could make out the words that were stamped, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
Immediately, her husband took a picture of Cayden’s arm. “He was screaming and crying the entire time,” Tara said. “He was humiliated, didn’t even want me to take a picture of it.”
There, in thick blue capital letters, were the words “LUNCH MONEY,” stamped on her son’s arm. But what was the meaning of this? And who had done it?
Cayden explained that it was the lunch lady. Apparently, she had felt the need to publicly shame him in front of the entire school. The more his parents heard, the angrier they became.
The fact that her son felt so embarrassed by the stamp was the most concerning part. Why wouldn’t the school send her a reminder via email if her son’s account was running low? Angered, they posted this incident online, was this right?
It wasn’t long before Tara’s post about the stamp exploded online. It quickly racked up hundreds of comments and shares. And most parents were supportive, saying that Tara’s anger was completely justified.
“Like, y’all couldn’t send a note?” her friend asked. “Y’all couldn’t think for two seconds about the numerous references of branding someone as a stigma?”
“What kind of twisted person holds a child’s arm & applies a big, block-lettered stamp in black ink to their little arm?!!” another user wrote.
Most people who saw the post said that the stamp was “unacceptable.” But what would the school have to say for themselves? Shortly after the post went viral, Tara heard from them.
Desert Cove Principal, Stacey Orest, stated that cafeteria staff had never intended to embarrass students with “reminder stamps,” and that they are always “supposed to ask them if they want a stamp or a reminder slip.”
But that answer wasn’t good enough for Tara or the other parents who were on her side. They wanted the “reminder” stamps gone.
The following Monday, after the extensive and prominent backlash manifested all across social media, the school was forced to make an official statement on the matter. Paradise Valley Unified School District spokesperson Becky Kelbaugh said:
“It was never the intention of Desert Cove Elementary School administration and staff to embarrass any student by using the stamp.”
She continued, “Students were given the choice between a letter or reminder stamp. Going forward, Desert Cove Elementary School will send a letter home notifying parents of low lunch balances.”
She also told the Phoenix New Times that Desert Cove will discontinue “reminder stamps” about low lunch-money accounts. But this isn’t the first time this has happened…
Jon Bivens’ son, a third-grader who attends Gardendale Elementary School, came home with a similar stamp on his arm. At first, Jon didn’t think much of it, “I thought it was a good job stamp,” he said.
Then, he saw that it was a stamp that said, “I need lunch money.” Jon was surprised, as the school usually sent them a notification when his son’s account was running low.
Jon and his wife send their son to school with packed lunches but allow him to occasionally buy treats from the school’s cafeteria.
But what angered Jon the most was that his son had had a positive balance on his cafeteria account at the end of the term. At the time of the offending stamp, Jon’s son still had a balance of $1.38.
“They herd these kids like cattle,” the angry dad said. He also said that his son was “branded.” “When you start stamping a message on a child’s body instead of calling…it’s not okay,” he said in an interview.
“It’s a form of bullying and shaming the kids,” he added. However, sometimes things can be even worse.
Unfortunately, there are many schools all across the country where so-called “lunch shaming” is still very much alive.
Many parents and even school cafeteria workers oppose it, as it dehumanizes children and exposes them to shame and scorn, but it’s still the norm for some schools. And sometimes, things can be even worse than a humiliating and stigmatizing stamp.
Lunch shaming can be defined as singling out a kid whose parents have school lunch debt. However, the way in which the kid is singled out can vary, and each school often feels free to go as far as the state law allows.
But sometimes, this has resulted in callous, inhuman punishments for children whose parents can’t afford school lunch.
Unfortunately, stamping is a relatively common shaming practice if a kid’s parents owe money in the concept of lunch debt; another usual practice is swapping the kid’s hot meal for a colder, lower-quality one.
However, sometimes it gets worse. As inhuman as it sounds, some schools make the kids work the debt off or verbally shame them in front of peers.
Many schools have gotten in trouble for these sorts of tactics and, just like in the stories above, faced backlash from parents and the media.
However, others defend it as a way to reduce school debt in a public schooling system with plenty on their plates in the form of budgeting problems. But does this really justify certain things?
Many people, both parents and former students, can tell real horror stories about how they or their kids were treated by the school staff when they couldn’t afford their lunch.
Here, we have compiled some of them, in hopes that they will make the right people think twice about the ethics of lunch shaming and the lenient legislation about it in some states.
“This was back in the early ’00s, but we were undocumented, my parents hardly spoke English, and I was in the red by $5. They threw out my pizza and gave me a plain peanut butter sandwich with water.”
“I cried so much that the lunch ladies took pity on me and bought me the pizza, but not until after 100+ elementary school kids stared at me crying for 10 minutes.”
“Each time I didn’t have money on my lunch card, I was made to serve lunch to my classmates along with the other students who couldn’t afford to eat. We then waited until the last student was served before we could serve ourselves.”
“And if that wasn’t bad enough, while the rest of the students got to enjoy recess after eating, we had to stay behind and wipe the cafeteria tables. Each of us was punished for our parents’ financial situation, and in hindsight, I feel sad for little 7-year-old me.”
“Not me, but I had a friend, and at her school they literally reserved tables for people who didn’t get the priced lunches. There were free lunches, but if you got them, you couldn’t sit with people who paid for it.”
“It took them six MONTHS to stop this because they realized they were losing money because all the kids were getting the free lunches to sit with their friends.”
“I wasn’t lunch-shamed, but I saw kids get lunch-shamed when I worked as a lunch lady in an elementary school. Myself and the other ladies with whom I worked would often pool money to pay for the kids with delinquent accounts.”
“Our boss would reprimand us if she caught us doing it and would rudely take the kids’ lunch out of his/her hands and throw it in the trash.”
“In elementary school, it got to the point that one lunch lady was nice enough to let me slowly pay a quarter every meal to pay for something — but some days they would refuse me anything at all to eat.”
“They would tell me every time in front of all my peers that my parents owed money and that’s why I wasn’t able to eat lunch that day. It may have been the reason I developed an eating disorder.”
“I ‘worked’ in the cafeteria in elementary and junior high whenever possible because my family had trouble affording lunch. I would leave for lunch about 15 minutes early to help the lunch ladies set up and serve food, so that I could get a free meal.”
“I enjoyed leaving class early, but other kids made fun of me for having to work during lunch. I felt like I had to do it to help my single mom not worry about if I was eating at school.”
“This was before the electronic lunch cards. My school handed out different-colored lunch tickets. Blue meant you paid full price, pink meant you got reduced prices, and yellow meant you got free lunches.”
“Those different-colored lunch tickets were not necessary. This was awful because the kids who could pay full price would pick on the other kids who had a pink or yellow ticket.”
As you can see, these practices can sometimes be cruel and impact kids’ emotional growth significantly. They make even less sense when one considers that, according to Feeding America, 16 million American children struggle with hunger each year.
Not many school cafeteria workers will turn away a kid who can’t pay for their meals, but some of them do. And sometimes, the laws force them to do even worse.
In 2016, Pennsylvania’s Eighty-Four district adopted a policy requiring school cafeteria workers to throw hot lunches away rather than serve them to children who owed lunch money.
“God is love, and we should love one another and be kind,” Koltiska said. “There’s enough wealth in this world that no child should go hungry, especially in school. To me this is just wrong.”
In order to protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.