School lunch shaming needs to stop. Simple solution: Adults need to stop acting despicable.

As a kid who received free breakfast and lunch for his entire childhood, I am keenly aware of the stigma, embarrassment, and shame associated with not having enough money to feed yourself.

As a child, teachers took the daily lunch count by asking us to raise our hand if we were:

Buying hot lunch
Buying cold lunch
Getting free hot lunch
Getting free cold lunch

Just writing those words brings me right back to the shame and embarrassment that every morning held for me.  

Later on, when I was homeless as an adult, I never looked into the possibility of soup kitchens or other programs to feed the homeless for the very same reasons:

I'd rather be hungry than humiliated.

I had thought that the system of requiring kids to raise their hands to indicate their economic status was a thing of the past. I assumed that it was a careless, thoughtless process that teachers and other school officials eventually recognized as wrongheaded and insensitive.    

Then I read about the food shaming that is currently going on in schools around the country.

From the New York Times:

"In Alabama, a child short on funds was stamped on the arm with “I Need Lunch Money.” In some schools, children are forced to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers to pay the debt. Other schools require cafeteria workers to take a child’s hot food and throw it in the trash if he doesn’t have the money to pay for it."

In other towns, children were made to wear a wrist band or perform chores in exchange for a meal. Oftentimes an alternative meal is provided when a child is short on funds, signaling their family's financial difficulties to the rest of the student body.

It's disgusting. Worse, these policies are being enacted by adults who have been trusted to teach and protect children. How can any adult with even a shred of decency do this to kids?

I suspect that the reasons are many.

The desire for profits (school cafeterias are often separate businesses run inside the school)  

But I suspect the most common reason for this food shaming is an absence of empathy. A failure to understand the stigma and shame associated with being poor. A lack of contact with people in a different socioeconomic class. 

Recently, I was debating a point with my cohost on our podcast, Boy vs. Girl, when she argued that my experiences with poverty (the removal of all parental support at the age of 18, my struggles with poverty and hunger, and my eventual homelessness) were not normal.  

I pushed back - perhaps not hard enough - on this idea. While hunger, homelessness, and poverty may be unusual experiences for people in the socioeconomic circles that I now occupy, these conditions are unusual at all for people in a lower socioeconomic classes. Food insecurity, lapses in adequate housing, and even homelessness are not uncommon. When I was poor, I knew many people who spent months and even years couch surfing, squatting, living in cars, living in tents, and trapped in the eviction cycle.

I had family members who were homeless for a time.

I think it's easy to forget about these people when we don't see them everyday. It's easy to underestimate their numbers when they don't occupy our social circles. It's especially easy to forget about them when they try like hell to disguise their poverty in an effort to preserve their dignity, as so many do.

As I did. 

48 million Americans - including 13 million children - live in households that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis. As a result, they struggle with hunger at some time during the year. 

These people exist. They exist in large numbers. 

It's hard enough to be poor. It's terrible to be hungry as a child. The last thing these kids need is their school highlighting their poverty with these despicable, stupid, insensitive acts of cruelty.  

Adults should know better. 

Earlier this month, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance and puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children.

I was happy to see a state taking action against these terrible practices, but I was also saddened to learn that action was required. 

Even if you've never experienced poverty, and even if you don't know someone who is impoverished personally, it doesn't make much effort or imagination to understand how traumatic food shaming can be for a child. 

So use some effort and imagination, damn it. Stop embarrassing yourself and humanity. Don't be a despicable, disgusting adult.  

The worst name for a food item in all of human history

I'm obsessed with the way foods are named. 

Chilean sea bass, for example, is really Patagonian tooth fish. 
Order Patagonian tooth fish the next time you want Chilean sea bass. Please?

My list of poorly named foods is extensive. 
It includes pulled pork, bread pudding, blood oranges, and field greens. 

But I have discovered the worst name for a food in all of human history:


Think about that for a minute. The liquid that parents use in place of breast milk to provide sustenance to their infants and ensure their caloric intake is called formula.

Formula: a word that already existed and was in frequent use when formula was invented in the early twentieth century and had absolutely nothing to do with food or nutrition.

  • We had mathematical formulas like for the area of a triangle: (b × h)/2 
  • We had the chemical formulas for products such as strychnine, a deadly poison: C21H22N2O2 
  • We had the trinitarian formula: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
  • We had Formula One racing

None of these definitions evoke the kind of thoughts you want when it comes to feeding a baby. 

Formula is a terrible name. It implies artificiality and chemical concoctions. It makes one think of laboratories and math textbooks and chemistry exams. It promotes images of magical potions and Frankenstein and rocket fuel. It's a word used to name a cleaning product (Formula 409) and a skin care line. It's a word used in devising corporate strategies and to describe novels filled with expected tropes.

It's a word that separates the breast milk replacement product from anything maternal or natural or nurturing. 

And there were so many better options. My plan was to list a bunch here, both amusing and realistic, but my wife proposed the best one, making the rest look ridiculous. 

Baby juice.
It's perfect. Even much better than the Similac or Enfamil name brands which attempt to avoid the word formula altogether (and fail miserably). 

Baby juice.
It's cute. Accurate. Catchy. Natural sounding. Fun to say.
Try to say "baby juice" without smiling. It's hard. 

And yes, the name is already being used on an existing product (further reinforcing the excellence of the name), but I don't care. It's the perfect replacement name for the worst name for a food in all of human history. 

A simple test to determine if a food is objectively tasty

My friends, Kim and Andrew, were kind enough to include a dish of canned jellied cranberry sauce on their Thanksgiving table for me.

I love canned jellied cranberry sauce.

I also brought canned jellied cranberry sauce to my class's annual Thanksgiving feast and was shocked to learn that 13 of the 18 students present had never seen the stuff. They were fascinated by the sloughing sound the cranberry sauce made as it left the can, as well as the way to retained the can's shape, right down to the ridges.

Despite their fascination, only a handful of kids tried my cranberry sauce. Most thought it looked disgusting. One kid said it looked "processed and fake." None liked it very much.

But I understand why:

Canned jellied cranberry sauce not very good. I think it's delicious, but I know objectively that it's not. I have a nostalgic affection for the food, but in reality, there are far better cranberry sauces in the world.

How do I know it's not good? I apply the test that I apply to all foods to determine if they are actually tasty or only nostalgically or culturally tasty:

How difficult would it be for me to find this food in a restaurant?

Restaurants are the perfect labs for determining the tastiness of a food. If consumers objectively love a food, I will find it on a menu somewhere, and with relative ease. Restaurants want to make money, and they make money by satisfying their customers. The best foods will eventually land on menus.  

I can't find canned jellied cranberry sauce anywhere. Therefore, it ain't good.

The same can be applied to many nostalgically or culturally appreciated foods. My wife, for example, is Jewish. Foods like kugel and gefilte fish are beloved by her people. 

I happen to know that neither of these foods are particularly tasty, however, because you cannot find either of them in restaurants. No one wants to eat kugel or gefilte fish unless they have been eating them on religious holidays or family gatherings all of their lives, because these foods are nostalgically tasty. 

Not actually tasty.

Actually, in my experience, most Jews don't like gefilte fish either, but perhaps my sample size is small.

The opposite is true for a food like challah, a bread traditionally eaten by Jews. I can find challah on many menus. It is served as French toast in chain restaurants as ubiquitous as IHOP. It's used for sandwiches in many diners and sandwich shops. Challah is an objectively delicious food, and I know this because it has found its way off the Jewish holiday table and into the mainstream diet because it actually tastes good. 

Matzo ball soup is similar. It's little more than chicken soup with a matzo ball in it, but still, I see it on menus. It's a food that non-Jewish people love.

I have a friend who likes to bring green bean casserole to potluck gatherings. She says it's delicious. When probed, I quickly determined that she has been eating green bean casserole all her life. It's her grandmother's recipe. Of course she likes green bean casserole. I's nostalgically delicious. 

But is it actually good?

I have never seen green bean casserole on a restaurant menu. So no. It's not actually tasty. It's only nostalgically tasty. 

Besides, of all the things you could put in a casserole, why green beans?

By the way, if you look into the history of green bean casserole, you'll discover that it was invented by the Campbell's Soup Company in 1955.

Convenient since cream of mushroom soup is one of the primary ingredients.  

The inspiration for the dish was "to create a quick and easy recipe around two things most Americans always had on hand in the 1950s: green beans and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup."

So the bar was pretty low when green bean casserole was invented:

Find two things that most Americans have in the pantry and mix them together.

Not exactly the makings of a delicious dish.

There will be people who push back against my test for objectively delicious food. They will argue that food need not be in restaurants to be objectively tasty. I understand why they feel this way. It's difficult to come to terms with the idea that the noodle pudding or green bean casserole that you and your family adore is not very tasty. 

I get it. I feel the same way about canned cranberry sauce. It's what my mother and her mother served at Thanksgiving every year, and it's fantastic. I love it. My whole family loves it. I told my wife that I want to eat it more often.

It's delicious.  

Nostalgically delicious. But that's okay. It doesn't make me like it any less, and on Thanksgiving, there is always more than enough for me.

The two reasons that people like foods that they initially despise are exactly the two reasons that I still don’t like those foods.

I’m known to have a limited palate. It’s not as limited as many of my friends contend, but there are admittedly large numbers of foods that I do not like, including salad, a great number of vegetables, many nuts, most Asian cuisines, most sauces and dressings, and more. I also don’t drink coffee or alcohol. People have many theories on my limited palate. People like to express these theories to me often.

I have many theories on their more expansive palates, including the belief (backed by science) that we have little control over the foods that we find palatable, so shaming, harassing, or otherwise disparaging a person’s food preferences is insensitive and stupid.

My friend actually purchased a testing kit and confirmed that I am a supertaster, which means that I taste more flavors – and am therefore sensitive to more flavors – than the average person, which goes a long way to explaining my limited palate.

I am tasting all the awful flavors that your less effective taste buds are missing.


Recently, Paul Rozin, a cultural psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has added to the research on food preferences. Rozin is especially interested in why people learn to love foods they initially hated, a phenomenon he calls “benign masochism.”

He has come up with two reasons to explain how this happens:

  1. Repeated exposure
  2. Social pressure

This explain a lot in terms of my limited palate.

Repeated exposure means that in order to learn to like a food that I don’t – say avocado – I would have to suffer again and again until I theoretically began liking it.


This sounds insane. I have to eat a food that I can barely swallow without feeling ill or vomiting in order to expand my palate? There are far too many palatable foods in the world for me to spend time torturing myself over a food item that doesn’t even grow naturally where I live.

But it’s the aspect of social pressure that perhaps explains my palate best. I am and have always been a nonconformist in the most extreme sense of the word. Social pressures have never meant all that much to me, oftentimes to my detriment. The thought that I might eat a food that I consider unpalatable in order to better align myself with the people around me sounds ridiculous.

Then again, I am often sitting at the table in a restaurant, staring at people who are enjoying the salad course while I gnaw on a piece of bread and politely readjust my napkin on my lap.

This doesn’t bother me, but perhaps it would make most people uncomfortable.

Maybe it’s a person’s desire to join his friends for sushi after work on Fridays that causes him to find a way to enjoy eating something that should obviously be cooked before eating.

Maybe it’s the incessant fawning over guacamole – made right at the table! – that pushes the avocado hater over to the dark side and decide to dip a chip.


Maybe it’s the pervasive, inexpensive nature of salad that causes so many people to adopt the dietary habits of small woodland creatures.

Rozin’s theory makes sense. If social pressures cause people to walk around with brand names plastered to their clothing and handbags and somehow think this is a good thing, then why would this not also apply to foods that initially make us feel ill?

Rozin also coins the term “hedonistic reversal” – the ability of our brain to tell our senses we’re going to turn something we should avoid into a preference. This applies to the person who decides that the spiciest buffalo wings are his favorite, mostly because he has become convinced that eating foods that most people find unpalatable makes him feel superior.

You know the type. These are the people who eat eye of newt because it’s the newest, latest food trend, and they want to appear cutting edge. Hip. Brave.

They never do. Instead, they often appear cloying. Desperate. Sad.

I’m not that kind of person, either. I hope.

Placing an engagement ring in food is stupid.

Last week comedian and podcast host Marc Maron proposed to his girlfriend by hiding the engagement ring in a stack of pancakes.

I do not understand the decision to conceal the engagement ring in food or drink. I cannot imagine a single instance in which this is the best or most preferred way to propose. It strikes me as a passive, ordinary, possibly  cowardly and an almost certainly sticky way to propose to a woman.

There is nothing romantic about someone reaching into a stack of pancakes or a glass of champagne to receive their engagement ring for the first time.

engagement-ring-fork ring

In my not-so-humble opinion, it’s just plain stupid. 

It’s not like an effective and memorable proposal is that difficult.

1. Choose the right place.

I chose Grand Central Station in New York City because Elysha once told me that it was her favorite building in the world, and I wanted to choose a place that would be around for a long, long time.

2. Say something great.

I didn’t exactly hit a homerun with my actual proposal, but it was serviceable. The police officer was unexpected, but it worked out fine. You can read the text of my proposal (and the description of the actual event) here. 

3. Put the ring on her finger.

Elysha actually took the ring from me and placed it on her finger herself, but this made sense given we were perched on the landing of a busy staircase in a room filled with hundreds of people. No sense risking one of us dropping the ring while I was trying to slide it on her finger.  

4. THEN eat. 

We had lunch at Ruby Foos with the 25 or so friends who came into New York to witness the proposal, followed by a stroll through Manhattan to Rockefeller Center to see the famed Christmas tree.

But this level of extravagance is certainly not required. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the kitchen with your fiancée following the proposal can be just as sweet.

Just keep the damn ring out of the peanut butter.