Stamping The Hands Of Children On The Free Lunch Program Is Just Cruel

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HA1116-001Noell Roni, a former principal at a charter elementary school in Colorado claims that she was fired after she tried to convince school officials to stop the practice of stamping the hands of children – including those who qualified for the free lunch program – when their lunch accounts were empty. The fact that stamping the hands of kids who can’t afford to pay for lunch would be a practice anywhere makes my heart break.

From The Daily Camera:

“As soon as I saw it happening, I was like, ‘No, this is not OK,’” she told the Daily Camera. “The students felt so humiliated, like they had done something wrong. They didn’t want to go into the lunchroom any more. It’s unethical and disrespectful.”

When Roni discovered that workers in the cafeteria were stamping the hands of kids who couldn’t afford to pay for lunch, she asked the food services manager to stop. The stamping continued, which prompted Roni to meet with school leadership, who agreed that the stamping should stop. The food services manager resigned. Three weeks later, a grandparent came to Roni “upset that her grandchildren, who qualified for free lunches, were getting their hands stamped and were too embarrassed to go through the lunch line.” That is just terrible. What kind of monster would be okay with shaming a kid like that?

Evelyn Bernstein, told the Camera on Sunday that she has two grandchildren at the school, a girl in high school and a boy in elementary school.

She said the boy told her that he tried to get pizza from the school lunch line, only to be given a cheese sandwich and have his hand stamped because there was no money in his account — though he qualifies for free lunches and didn’t need [sic] actually need money.

He was embarrassed and didn’t want to get hot lunch again, Bernstein said.

Why would these lunch room workers feel justified shaming a child for not having enough money in an account to pay for lunch? If your job is feeding children for a living, don’t you think you should be most concerned about whether these children are getting fed, not who’s paying for it?

The executive director of education for the charter school demanded Roni take responsibility for the food services manager quitting and placed a disciplinary letter in her file citing “unprofessional conduct.” Roni claimed the director used the incident as an example of insubordination, and it eventually led to her being terminated. Roni’s response to the whole debacle?

“You put kids first. That’s more important than whether I’m going to get along with my co-worker.”

(photo: Getty Images)



  1. Amanda W

    January 9, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I work for a few small schools and we operate under the school lunch program. The National School Lunch Program is conducting site-reviews across the board it states in their rules and regulations that schools are not allowed to stamp a child’s hand to as a way to determine if they qualify for free/reduced lunch. I hope this school gets reviewed soon because this is not okay.

    • Mel

      January 9, 2014 at 5:09 pm

      I agree! I think purposefully stamping the kids to identify those who receive assistance is cruel and disgusting. In this instance (if I’m reading it right) the free lunch kids were accidentally marked, when the intent was to send a reminder home for parents to refill the lunch account. If the intent is truly to be a reminder, I think the stamp is a clever idea and instead of stopping, they should do better to ensure that the kids receiving assistance are not stamped.

    • Rebekah

      January 10, 2014 at 12:02 am

      When I was in grade school and ran out of lunchmoney, the sent a fucking note home like normal people. Once it got out of hand (like 18 dollars) and the called my dad. No one had to be publicly humiliated for not having money. No stamping. Ever.

  2. Alexandra

    January 9, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Wow this is disgusting and heartbreaking. How could this be allowed to happen? Jesus Christ. Food stamps aren’t even “stamps” anymore, right, they look just like credit cards because even ADULTS shouldn’t have to put up with this type of treatment, let alone kids. Im just about crying at this.

    • Zoe Lansing

      January 9, 2014 at 6:10 pm

      Most school systems also have credit card type things that all the students use to pay for lunch.They look the same regardless of whether or not the child gets free or reduced lunch.This helps reduce the stigma economically disadvantaged kids often face.Stamping kids’ hands because they have no $ in their accounts or participate in the free lunch program basically undermines this,however.Hopefully there there will be enough outrage about this practice for it to be stopped.It’s disgusting!

    • Mel

      January 9, 2014 at 7:18 pm

      I like the credit card idea. Everyone just swipes so there’s no money changing hands for anyone. They definitely need an alert of some sort so that the free lunch people don’t get tagged as zero balance. I agree that hopefully the negative publicity will make the employees get better trained and more observant.

  3. Kelly

    January 9, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    This is awful but it doesn’t surprise me a bit. When I was in elementary school and junior high, I used to go without lunch because the lunch ladies would treat me poorly for being on the free lunch program.

    Those uppity bitches acted like I was taking money directly out of their pockets. It made me feel like shit as a kid but now I’d like to track them down and smack the shit out of them for being such horrible people.

    • brebay

      January 9, 2014 at 5:31 pm

      Like lunch ladies are really successful in life. They’re poor adults, a kid is poor through accident of birth only. Don’t you wish you could go back in time and tell them where to stick their hairnet?

    • CMJ

      January 9, 2014 at 5:37 pm

      Yeah….it still doesn’t give them the right to make others feel like shit.

    • Zoe Lansing

      January 9, 2014 at 5:56 pm

      Kelly’s lunch ladies were bitches but let’s not label all school cafeteria workers unsuccessful losers.Just because somebody has a blue collar,lower-paying job doesn’t mean they’ve failed at life.

    • Sara

      January 10, 2014 at 1:13 am

      That really sucks 🙁 our lunch ladies were really nice to us kids on free/reduced lunch and would sometimes slip us little homemade goodies! So not all lunch ladies are from the Black Lagoon!

  4. Mel

    January 9, 2014 at 5:05 pm

    Yes, for the kids, this was surely very embarrassing. But, if I’m understanding correctly, they just wanted to send a reminder that the lunch account was empty, right? This wasn’t intended to be a scarlet letter, but a way to alert the parents. I assume everyone here at least has some knowledge of kids, and therefore know that expecting an elementary school kid to remember the lunch account or even get home with some sort of paper notice is completely ridiculous. I’m failing to understand how this targeted the “free lunch” kids? By the story about the cheese sandwich, it seems like some of those kids fell through the cracks, which is completely sad. But they system wasn’t set up to “mark” the free lunch kids, from what I can tell. So, instead of abolishing the whole thing and calling it cruel, why don’t they set it up better and train employees better so that the free lunch kids aren’t accidentally marked?

    • TwentiSomething Mom

      January 9, 2014 at 5:13 pm

      It is not the kid’s responsibility to remember to fill the account or the kid’s fault they qualify for free lunch. They should not be the ones punished. If the account is low, a letter should be sent home- parents should review their children’s folders nightly. And if the account is empty. they should get a meal anyway and maybe a phone call to the parents as a reminder.

      This was cruel and just plain terrible.

    • Andrea

      January 9, 2014 at 6:04 pm

      Ok, it is cruel. And I don’t recommend it.However, school system DO end up thousands in the hole from lunch accounts every year. I think we should come up with a better system that doesn’t punish the kids, but at the same time, schools cannot be left holding the bag.

    • Mel

      January 9, 2014 at 7:12 pm

      I’m getting a little tired of this knee-jerk OH THE HORROR reaction. Yes, it was bad. Yes, the free lunch kids were mistakenly stamped. But that was not the intent and the workers need to be better trained to only stamp the zero balance kids. And if you think kids will make it all the way home with a boring letter they were handed in the lunch line, you have more faith in 7 year olds than I do. But by your rationale, carrying the letter would be cruel and just plain terrible because it would also identify them. The intent is to get parents to pay their bill. So some kids are gonna get their hands stamped. If the parents are that worried about this torture, maybe the parents can do a better job of keeping the accounts filled. Wait, parent’s aren’t perfect you say? Well, that’s right and neither are these employees.

    • Kay_Sue

      January 9, 2014 at 9:59 pm

      Our schools have a communication folder. Every student is provided with one. The teachers place all relevant communications there. The folder goes directly in the kids’ bookbags.

      When a child’s lunch account is negative (we did this on accident once), the lunchroom has the letters placed in the teacher’s box, and the teacher places them in the folder. The child never knows–because it’s not the child’s responsibility.

      If my son’s hand had been stamped for everyone to see because we had screwed up and missed sending a check, I would have been absolutely livid. It is not his responsibility, and it is not a stigma he should have to bear.

    • Mel

      January 9, 2014 at 11:14 pm

      Sounds like your school has a good system in place, and that’s great. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t judge this one school based on it being different from your school. I will also say that if you’re livid about you kid getting his hand stamped one time, then your life must be pretty good, and I’m very glad about that. #firstworldproblem

      With that, I’ve said all I have to say and I really do hope you have a great night!

    • Kay_Sue

      January 9, 2014 at 11:27 pm

      It’s not one stamp. It’s the stigma the kid would have to live with, day to day, from their peers. Kids are cruel. Yeah, I’d be upset that my kid would face that, when it wasn’t his fault–it was mine. None of those kids have any control over the situation, and yet, they are the ones marked–both literally and figuratively–for it. And that’s something that can quite possibly follow them for longer than just the one day they are stamped. If you’re cool with that, that’s fine too. I’m not.

      There are better ways to deal with it, and this school should have looked into that, versus disciplining and eventually firing someone who dared to say, “Wait a minute, is this really best for the kids?”

    • Sara

      January 10, 2014 at 1:07 am

      Do your kids go to a mostly middle class school? (I’m asking out of curiosity and don’t want to make assumptions.) In my school district we have mostly poverty to lower class families. So while the folder thing is a great idea most of our schools don’t have to resources to print those pages. Our teachers have just been limited on the amount of copies they can make and I highly doubt that the lunch ladies get a quota of paper. I think the stamp isn’t a bad idea. What happened here is human error and maybe the system needs to be tweaked more.

    • Kaili

      January 10, 2014 at 6:35 am

      What’s wrong with old fashioned snail mail? Don’t government institutions get bulk rate?

    • CMJ

      January 9, 2014 at 5:38 pm

      Why stamp at all? Why not just call parents or send a letter home?

    • Mel

      January 9, 2014 at 7:03 pm

      Because they are elementary schoolers so I doubt a letter would make it home much of the time. It’s more likely to get thrown on the floor or in the trash. And I doubt that the low wage cafeteria workers are going to call all of the parents individually. I agree that the system isn’t perfect, obviously, I’m just saying I don’t think the intent was to brand the poor kids.

    • Kay_Sue

      January 9, 2014 at 10:01 pm

      That is absolutely my point too. We let our son’s account go into the red once by mistake. I thought my husband has sent the check, he thought I had. I would have been livid if they had stamped his hand, or made him publicly identifiable for our error. A letter was sent home in a folder that the school already has set up for communication between parents and teachers.

    • Blueathena623

      January 9, 2014 at 7:53 pm

      I agree that free-lunch kids weren’t being targeted, but
      1. What are they stamping with that lasts long enough to get home.?
      2. The grandma quoted says that the kids were getting their hands stamped, so both of them. One is in elementary, one is in high school. You shouldn’t have to stamp a high schooler.

    • Mel

      January 9, 2014 at 8:10 pm

      No idea about the stamp ink, but I’m not sure that high schoolers are more reliable than elementary schoolers!

    • Maddi Holmes

      January 10, 2014 at 10:13 am

      No one should be stamped, a note should be sent home with the kid and/or in the post. If the kids aren’t reliable enough they should call the parent (or in this day and age they could probably just email the parent). Intent is meaningless; people who drink and drive don’t intend to kill someone, but they often do, should they then not be punished for the life they took?

      Everyone who has at least some knowledge of kids probably also knows that kids will use absolutely ANYTHING to bully other people. Putting a stamp on the kids hand that says “I can’t pay for my lunch” is like putting a giant “bully me” on their back. It’s not okay.

    • Mel

      January 10, 2014 at 10:30 am

      I understand what you’re saying, and we agree that the system is flawed. But I’m not going to participate in comparing stamping a kid’s hand to the real crimes of driving under the influence and manslaughter. Clearly this issue has generated more than enough fury and righteous indignation, so I just don’t want to play this game anymore. Thanks for replying to me and I hope you have a wonderful day.

    • Maddi Holmes

      January 10, 2014 at 10:41 am

      Oh no I wasn’t comparing the two, I was just giving an example to demonstrate that intent is completely useless, it’s what happens/how people react that matters.

    • Mel

      January 10, 2014 at 10:54 am

      I don’t agree that intent does not matter. I think intentions are very important. If they set up a program to brand/mark the free lunch kids I would be furious. In this case, the system was flawed and so some of those kids were accidentally stamped. Oh yes, intentions are very important, and anyone who is not evil but has still made mistakes should agree. I’m so glad that people are smart enough to know the difference between a mistake/accident and a malicious/mean act. And to use your example, even the law agrees. You don’t get the same punishment for DUI Manslaughter that you get for Premeditated Felony murder. It’s called mens rea (guilty mind) and it’s used to determine how “bad” an offense was. I think there was no mens rea here, just a poorly implemented system.

  5. TwentiSomething Mom

    January 9, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    I hope this woman gets her job back. She stood up for those kids which is what anyone responsible for children should do. This whole ordeal is just sickening. If the children’s accounts are low, a letter should be sent home, if its empty, make a phone call to the parents. Don’t shame the kids. Its not their fault or anyone else’s business if they qualify for free lunch or if their parents cannot afford to keep their balances high.

    Instead of finding ways to shame children, the people that implemented this stamp idea should find ways to make sure children can get affordable or free meals. This is a school, where kids come to learn. How can they do that if they’re hungry?

    I’m sure prisoners don’t have problems getting their meals in jail- why should these kids????

    I’m pissed at this story. Ughhhh.

    • Mel

      January 9, 2014 at 7:15 pm

      Did you read the story? The plan was not to stamp “poor kid” on their foreheads. The intent was not evil nor were the kids treated like prisoners or whatever. I’m absolutely as pissed as you that the free lunch kids were accidentally included with the kids who just need their accounts refilled. It’s terrible that it happened that way, and better training is definitely needed. But, to my understanding, this program was not implemented to brand the free lunch kids.

  6. Momma425

    January 9, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    Why not just stamp “POOR KID” on their foreheads?

  7. lisa

    January 10, 2014 at 12:07 am

    Please read the original daily camera article. It was a glitch in the system that caused the kids on the free lunch program to get a hand stamp. Regrettable, but eventually fixed. The food service workers certainly didn’t know they were stamping the hands of free lunch kids. Hand stamping is how our school district handles alerting parents of empty lunch accounts. Both of my kids have had their hands stamped on occasion and neither felt shamed by it. It was just a reminder that their accounts were empty. It could be argued that an email or letter home might be a better reminder.

    • Bria

      January 10, 2014 at 1:05 am

      I feel like a phone call, emaii, or letter home would be a much better option. We get an email when our sons account is running low.

  8. Bria

    January 10, 2014 at 12:54 am

    My step-son’s school actually handles free lunches wonderfully. Every kid (free, reduced or regular lunch) has a PIN number they give when they get their food instead of giving money or their name (that’s how free lunch was done when I was in school). The kids that pay for lunch turn in money to the office whenever their account is empty and it is added to their account. Nobody knows who has free/reduced lunch and who doesn’t. It’s fantastic.

  9. Kaili

    January 10, 2014 at 6:48 am

    When I was 13 my father passed. I went from an exploratory school to a public middle school in Appalachia. The school had everybody pile into the gym and eat on the bleachers for lunch. Everyone had lunch at the same time. Since their were no tables, only sack lunches were allowed in the gym. Hot food was only served in a little common room. The only kids who had hot food were the free lunch kids.

    I remember I had a crush on this guy and I asked one of the girls why he wasn’t at lunch. She said “oh he’s poor. The poor kids eat in there” and pointed to a door. I was horrified and felt so bad for those kids.

    A few weeks later my mum had a meeting with the guidance counsellor to see how it was fitting in. I was angry and said – I hate this school! You don’t have any sports for me to play, I have no math or science courses this semester and you’re rude to poor kids”. He said “Honey you are in Appalachia now.” He said to my mum “as a widow I’m sure you qualify for free lunches here is the form”. She ignored him and asked how his kids coped. He said “oh they don’t go here! They are in private school.” My mum was so cold. “So it’s not good enough for your kids, but my kid is fine

    • Kaili

      January 10, 2014 at 6:52 am

      Sorry for the typing errors. I’m in bed with my ipad listening to dh snore. This story just made a lot of memories flood back in.

  10. gothicgaelicgirl

    January 10, 2014 at 7:52 am

    Absolutely sickening, way to make kids feel even MORE pressure in school.
    Disgusting behavious

  11. CaptainDorkOfTheWeeniePatrol

    January 10, 2014 at 9:22 am

    Kids have a clear mind that becomes populated with experiences as they grow, and adults, as the trainers, help fill those minds with information, customs, attitudes, and wisdom.

    The breakdown here is that the adult(s) in charge are failing to demonstrate that they have embraced those attributes themselves.

  12. Amanda D

    January 10, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    At my child’s school they stamp his hand when the account is getting low to give us that indication that it is time to put more money in the account, which I don’t mind. He used to be on Free School Lunch and his hand never got stamped, but now that we are only on the Reduced Lunch it does. However, he is never denied whatever food he wants just because of low or no funds like that lunch lady did. Which is why I understand the wanting of not stamping the hands and would be fine with just a letter sent home.

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