HILLSBORO — A graduate of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is taking on the nationwide issue of lunch shaming by creating a website that explains the issue and calls for change.
"Lunch shaming takes place when students are provided an alternative meal, branded with stickers or stamps, or have lunch withheld in an effort to get their parents to pay a debt," Zach Wygal said. "This project was created to help raise awareness and allow website visitors to contact legislators that are directly involved with current bills combating lunch shaming."
Lunch shaming happens when students are singled out and stigmatized during lunch. A student who has no money in a school lunch account to pay for that day's lunch may be given a cold sandwich — or no food at all — instead of a hot meal. The intent is to pressure the student's parents into paying any meal-related debt.
Wygal, now an eighth-grade teacher at Hillsboro Junior High School in Hillsboro, had a bachelor's degree in special education from SIUE and was pursuing a master's degree in curriculum and instruction when he was introduced to lunch shaming during a class on poverty in schools. He later switched degree programs and earned a master's in diversity and equity in education.
"At (that) time, my school would give students a cheese sandwich if they had a balance over $25," Wygal said. "I thought back to when I was younger and realized that low-income students had different colored lunch tickets. While working in a low-income area, I became interested in how poverty impacts students. I was unable to find research on how students felt about lunch shaming and decided to switch my master's focus to diversity and equity in education."
By switching his focus, Wygal was able to conduct research and interview students who were familiar with the impact of lunch shaming, and his capstone project laid the foundation for endlunchshaming.com.
The website includes information about lunch shaming, stories about students who have been impacted by it and ways people can take action against it, including contacting their state representatives. There now are two bills waiting in Congress, both titled "The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2019."
"Visitors can easily find their legislator and click on their link," Wygal said. "There's even a letter available for users to copy and paste. The entire process only takes a couple of minutes."
Wygal hopes the website does some good.
"The more people talk about lunch shaming, the better chance we can end it for good," he said. "Students are often the ones caught in the middle of what should be something between parents and schools. These kids can't get a job to pay for their lunches. They just want to show up to school to learn, eat, and be treated like anyone else."