I was lunch shamed. This is my story.

Rowena, as a child
October 15, 2019
by Rowena Norman

You hear a lot about kids who have been lunch shamed. 

Kids who were treated differently – singled out, humiliated even – in the school cafeteria because their family didn’t have the money to pay for lunch. Well, I was one of those kids. And this is my story.

My name is Rowena Norman. Today I’m the director of new partnerships at Feeding America. But back when I was about 10, I was just a kid going to elementary school in Whittier, California – a suburb of Los Angeles.

And my story is a little different from many of the lunch shaming stories you hear. So often, kids who are lunch shamed are kids whose parents can’t afford school meals. That wasn’t the case with my family. You see, at the time, we were solidly middle-class. Both of my parents were working. I knew I’d come home to food in the refrigerator. I wasn’t worried about what I’d eat for dinner.

So, when I was lunch shamed, it wasn’t because we didn’t have the money to afford school lunches. It was literally because my mom would forget to send in the check. But to a 10-year-old, that distinction didn’t matter. It hurt just as much.

Rowena Norman wearing purple dress
As a kid, Rowena Norman was lunch shamed. Now, she's on the Feeding America team, helping provide food for kids in need.

Because on those days when I didn’t have that check to pay for lunch, I would have to work in the cafeteria, in front of all my classmates. I’d put on a gross plastic apron and hairnet and students would hand me their dirty trays. I’d scrape all the food off the trays into the garbage, and then I’d use one of those industrial strength water sprayers to rinse the trays off and put them into the dishwasher. Water always got everywhere. Everything in the kitchen was wet – including me. 

I felt so embarrassed and isolated. The last thing a 10-year-old girl wants to do is stick out in front of her classmates, but that’s exactly what happened. And a lot of kids would make fun of me. It didn’t matter whether I had food at home or not. All that mattered was in those moments, I was different from the kids around me, and everyone knew it. 

Like many moments in childhood, the embarrassment passed, and I moved on. What I didn’t realize then was that later in my life, I would have family who struggled with hunger. 

But there is a happy ending here. It was those experiences – the lunch shaming first and then living with hunger in my family – that inspired me to do the work I do today. And for that, I am incredibly proud. Because every day I’m able to help ensure that no kid in America, at home or at school, feels embarrassed, alone or humiliated because they don’t have a basic human right – food to eat. 

No kid should have to experience lunch shaming. Make sure kids can focus on school, and not worry about being humiliated in the cafeteria by taking these three easy actions to help.