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Presidential Candidates Seize on Viral 'Lunch Shaming' Stories


Education policy wonks often complain that schools don't get enough discussion in presidential campaigns. So it's unusual that some of the Democrats seeking their party's 2020 nomination are focused on something even more specific—school lunch.

Several candidates have shared viral stories about "lunch shaming," the practice of refusing to provide a student with a hot school lunch because of unpaid meal debt. Most recently, they tweeted a story about a 9-year-old boy who paid off his classmates' overdrawn lunch balances with allowance money he'd saved up. 

Some used their tweets to generally lament child poverty and hunger, and some called for unspecified reforms to school meal programs, even if they haven't yet added such proposals to their policy platforms.

Some, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, used the stories to promote their education plans, which call for universal free meals nationwide.

What those tweets didn't acknowledge was that many schools and districts already offer universal free meals, that a majority of students who eat school lunches qualify for free meals, and that school cafeteria workers say it's not always poverty that leads to unpaid meal accounts. I dug into those issues in this quick school lunch debt explainer.

The policy responses to poverty are often complicated and nuanced—like changes to the way low-income housing vouchers are distributed, how school funding is allotted, and the way poverty itself is measured.

But the lunch-shaming stories, which have long gone viral without the attention of presidential candidates, provide an opportunity to link an issue that resonates with regular people to the policy that might address it in a way that's ... digestible.

Photo: AP Photo/Mary Esch, File

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