The cheese sandwich of shame

To motivate parents to pay school-lunch debts, schools are serving an alternate meal, usually a cheese sandwich to the children of deadbeats. In Chula Vista, lunch debts fell from $300,000 in 2004 to $67,000 in 2006 with the advent of the cheese sandwich, reports the LA Times. But parents complain that cheese has become the sandwich of shame, humiliating children for their parents’ forgetfulness.

Most schools across the country have introduced alternate meals, said Erik Peterson, a spokesman for the School Nutrition Assn., an Alexandria, Va.-based organization for school nutrition professionals.

Orange County’s Capistrano Unified School District serves crackers with peanut butter or cheese. The Los Angeles Unified School District gives children half a sandwich and a piece of fruit. Peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches are a common alternate meal, but not a very effective one.

“It seemed to be one of the children’s very favorite meals, so that wasn’t productive,” said Beth Taylor, nutrition director for the Johnston County School District in North Carolina, where such sandwiches were tried. Taylor said switching to vegetable and fruit trays changed everything. Among last week’s menu items for students with lunch balances: crunchy cole slaw, fried squash and steamed cabbage. “The outstanding debt has been reduced to nothing,” she said.

Districts with lots of low-income students have no problem: The federal government funds lunch. It’s middle-class parents who neglect to pay for lunch but want their children served anyhow.

About Joanne


  1. Now matter how you slice it, it’s a *great* idea.

  2. The parent comments in this story indicate so much of what’s wrong in life in the US right now which particularly contributes to problems with public schools. Despite clearly failing to attend to paying for their children’s food despite the fact that they earn enough money to pay, they try to blame someone else for the negative outcome and embarrassment for their kids. If you know the price of school lunch and you know how many days of school there have been, YOU can tell when your kid in going to run out of money. It is not someone else’s fault that your kid ran out.

    Now, I think it’s normal for parents to forget about lunch money every once in a while. Eating a cheese sandwich shouldn’t be a life long badge of shame. It is no big deal to for a kid to realize that if you don’t pay attention and run out of money that people aren’t going to keep giving you stuff for free just because you want it. In fact, it seems a much more appropriate life lesson than “appropriate touching” for schools to teach.

  3. I agree with NDC – the parents apparently CAN pay (or else their kids would get free lunch), but they can’t be bothered to. Or they’re too involved with something else. Or it’s not a priority with them. Or they figure their kids “deserve” free lunch for some reason.

    And then they are griping because their kid isn’t given the super-delux lunch. And that the “cheese sandwich” leads to their kid being ridiculed.

    Well – in addition to the message of “stop being stupid” I’d like to send to these parents, I have another message:

    Any failure to conform to whatever the “trend of the week” is in an American junior high school is grounds for the failure-to-conform kid to be teased, ridiculed, ostracized, etc. It’s part of the law of the jungle that has reigned in these schools for over 20 years. Wearing the “wrong” brand of jeans can bring it on. Being a little too clumsy can bring it on. Needing glasses can bring it on. Having a speech impairment can bring it on. Even being “too smart” can bring it on.

    So it’s not like your kids are being singled out for extra-special-horrific treatment. In fact, I dare say, they’re probably dishing out their fair share of meanness to kids below them on the pecking order.

    Either pay for the danged lunches, or shut up.

  4. Joanne,

    I work in the infamous Chula Vista School District and the amount of coverage this cheese sandwich has received is definitely a sign that the apocalypse is upon us. You’d think folks would rather talk about our huge population of English Learners (We’re 5 miles from the Mexican border) who need to develop English proficiency or face a stigma a little more significant than a cheesy “scarlet letter” for lunch. A lot of time, energy, and attention is being wasted on a trivial topic.

  5. Everybody here must pay their bills all the time, and on time. I think this is a great program for all bills, not just school lunches. If anyone forgets to pay a bill, or pays it late, even by $7.50, hey, shame their children!

    Hey, it’s for our own good. We should pay our bill all the time, and on time. And if we are late, shame our children! That will teach us a lesson. Bill paying is a high priority, and if people don’t understand that, we should punish their children!

    This is nuts!

    Also, please don’t ask me what the solution should be. Just because I recognize this solution as a bad one, doesn’t mean I know how to collect bills from defaulting payers effectively. I don’t know what the solution is, but shaming the kids is not a good one. And the argument that they are being shamed by their peers for one reason or another anyway, doesn’t mean we should pile on more shame.

    Defaulting $7.50? I mean, come on! And what if there is an accounting mistake? The child was shamed for no reason! And of course, we all know that school administrators don’t make accounting mistakes, right?

  6. Ok, they get a cheese sandwich for lunch….a “Free” cheese sandwich and its fruit, milk, etc. Be a parent and TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR CHILDREN ! Talk about screwed up proirities of some parents!

  7. But the total tab for defaulting was $300,000 not $7.50.

    The school isn’t making it shameful. Yes, the school has to make the food itself undesirable because otherwise there’s not incentive to pay, but the shame, if there really is any, comes from knowing that your parents let the money run out, and the school isn’t responsible for that.

    Remember that the cheese sandwich isn’t a sudden “gotcha” move by the cafeteria. Even 7.50 represents multiple days of telling the kids he or she is out of money (and I got the impression that the schools sent home account statements too.)

  8. I would use word like “shame” and “humiliation” for more significant events than a cheese sandwich. If a cheese sandwich means humiliation, what words are available to express true humiliation?

    I’ve heard the “don’t punish the children for the sins of the parents” argument before. In practice, this would translate into, “allow us to raise our children in a world free of consequences.”

    After graduation, not paying bills leads to the loss of electricity, heat, and water. Families can be evicted, cars can be repossessed, and credit card rates can be raised. I should think that, given such consequences for adults, a parent might welcome a cheese sandwich or two to teach a child the importance of keeping up with financial obligations.

  9. Polski and friends,

    Actually, the cheese sandwich is also accompanied by a trip to the salad bar with lettuce, beans, fruit, and dressing. As for the shame and humiliation, in three years at my school, I’ve yet to witness one incident of embarassment or shame and I’ve spent many an afternoon at the lunch tables. The anecdotal cases are quite isolated, I’m sure.