Far too often in school cafeterias across the country, a student is served a lunch, only for it to be thrown away because he or she does not have money in the lunch account or in hand to pay for the meal. Some school districts also reportedly stamp children’s hands or make them wear stickers that say “I need lunch money” — ostensibly to remind a parent or guardian to put funds in a student’s lunch account.
But each of these strategies invariably causes embarrassment in front of the student’s peers, which is why the policies are lumped under the phrase “lunch shaming.” And school districts often discover that many students’ who owe school lunch money are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, but have not been certified to receive them.
School meal debt is a challenge for most school districts, and policies for how school districts deal with this issue vary significantly. Some allow students to “charge” a meal if they cannot pay, but many limit this to a certain number of meals or a strict dollar amount. Some districts may offer a child a standard meal from the menu regardless of the ability to pay, while other districts may serve an alternate meal such as a cheese sandwich when meal debt accrues. Some offer nothing at all, a practice more common among secondary schools.
One state has already taken a strong stance against “lunch shaming” practices. New Mexico recently passed a law that requires communication about school meal debt to be directed only to parents and guardians and not children. New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights ensures that all children will be fed, and provides guidelines for collecting debt.
The School Nutrition Association has reported that 76 percent of school districts across the country have some outstanding student debt. When students are allowed to charge a meal, the school district must follow up with families to collect the money owed. Federal rules require charges that cannot be collected from families to be written off as bad debt that must be covered by funds outside of the school nutrition programs. Concerns about tight budgets often come into conflict with a school nutrition department’s mandate to feed children, with many school districts struggling to find a balance. Many school nutrition directors have long asked for direction on how to handle these situations.
Fortunately, there is movement to put an end to the most harmful of these policies. Recently, members of the House and Senate introduced bills that shine a spotlight on the issue. They would end the practices of marking — or otherwise identifying — students who owe school lunch debt, of requiring them to do chores, or taking food away once it has been served. They also require efforts to collect meal debt to be directed to the parents and encourage schools to take steps to ensure that eligible children are certified for free or reduced-price school meals.
Even absent Congressional action, there will be changes in school cafeterias across the country on the issue. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is requiring school districts to establish a policy by July 1 for the 2017–2018 school year for how to handle situations when students do not have money to pay for their meal. Alternatively, states can set a policy for all school districts to follow, or set guidelines that local policies must meet. Though USDA has not prescribed what school districts can and cannot do, this is an important opportunity for states, school administrators, advocates and other stakeholders to establish policies that protect children and prevent stigma in the cafeteria.
In addition to the New Mexico legislation, California, New York, and Texas also are considering similar bills to protect students from stigma in the cafeteria. Other states, such as Minnesota, have taken steps to mitigate the problem by providing state funding to cover the copayment of 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast that families eligible for reduced-price meals pay. Often, working poor families, especially those with more than one school-aged child, struggle to pay even this modest amount and end up accruing debt.
Another option that can eliminate the issue entirely for schools is offering meals at no charge to all students in high-needs schools using the federal Community Eligibility Provision. Currently, more than 20,000 schools are participating in community eligibility, but many more are eligible but have not signed up yet, leaving families to accrue debt unnecessarily.
While many schools struggle with how to cover the cost of unpaid meal fees, ultimately, policies that stigmatize children do not serve the school district or its students. Leaving children hungry and unable to learn, exacerbated by embarrassment, is a path that no school should follow.
James Weill is president of the Food Research & Action Center, and has served in this role since 1998. Weill has devoted his entire career to reducing hunger and poverty and protecting the legal rights of children and low-income people.
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