Virginia woman campaigns to end school lunch shaming
Oklahoma Policy Institute
The National School Breakfast and School Lunch Programs provide critical nutrition support to more than 425,000 Oklahoma children every year, but many students are either not eligible or not enrolled in the free and reduced price school meals programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch program, requires all schools to have a written policy regarding unpaid meal debt, but practices still vary widely from district to district. According to Oklahoma Watch, students in the Choctaw-Nicoma Park School District used to have their hands stamped it they had a negative balance of more than $5. Middle school students in Tulsa Public Schools were given half a cheese sandwich and water if they owed more than $8.40, and students in some school districts have gone through the lunch line only to reach the cashier at the end and have their meal thrown away because they owed money.
At the same time, school nutrition professionals and education advocates are raising concerns about growing unpaid meal debt and the burden that unpaid meals can place on already strapped school budgets. The Oklahoma Food Banks and our partners across the state believe no child should be humiliated or denied a meal at school because of inability to pay. Senate Bill 1104, by Senator AJ Griffin, would require schools to provide a meal application in every school enrollment packet, file applications for eligible students, provide a meal to any student who requests one, and prohibit schools from throwing away a student’s meal due to an inability to pay. There is a solution to school meal debt, and it doesn’t require shaming children or denying them meals. Oklahoma can make significant progress towards addressing hunger and shoring up struggling school finances by increasing participation in federal nutrition programs across the board, like the National School Lunch Program.
The School Lunch Program brought more than $172 million into Oklahoma schools during FY 2017, and the School Breakfast Program contributed an additional $61.3 million in federal reimbursements. Further, federal options available to schools like the Community Eligibility Provision can reduce administrative burdens and eliminate the need to collect individual school meal applications and track individual student payments. SB 1104 would ensure school meal programs are administered in a way that limits harm to children experiencing hunger and helps schools maximize the federal reimbursement they receive for providing meals through the National School Breakfast or National School Lunch Programs. Oklahoma legislators must pass SB 1104 to address childhood hunger, preserve student dignity, and promote the National School Breakfast and School Lunch Programs.
Banning “Lunch Shaming” – Children’s Defense Fund
State Senator Michael Padilla, the lawmaker who introduced it, understands what it’s like to be hungry at school. She later learned her son’s school lunch account had money in it but was low. Unpaid meals can add up: one study notes the School Nutrition Association found about 75 percent of districts had some unpaid student meal debt at the end of the last school year. The same article notes many students who cannot pay for their meals actually qualify for free or reduced priced meals through the federal school lunch program but aren’t signed up. During the 2015-2016 school year 21.6 million children received free or reduced price lunches through the National School Lunch Program.
The federal program also includes a community eligibility provision which allows school districts, individual schools, or groups of schools to offer two nutritious meals daily to all students at no charge if more than 40 percent of their students meet certain eligibility standards that should help address the unpaid meal fees problem. Last school year more than 18,000 high poverty schools in nearly 3,000 school districts across the country – serving more than 8.5 million children – participated in this program, giving them the chance to serve all of their students without the administrative burdens of taking applications and collecting meal fees and without being forced to turn children away. The right answer should not depend on the kindness of lunch ladies or cruel school district policies that shame children and leave them hungry for more than food. The federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to examine the challenges of unpaid school meal fees.
USDA sent a Report to Congress, Review of Local Policies on Meal Charges and Provision of Alternate Meals, in June 2016 and issued guidance requiring school districts participating in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast program, beginning with the 2017-2018 school year, to establish policies and procedures to address the challenge of unpaid school meal fees, although significant local discretion is allowed on the content of the policy. The USDA’s website includes resources to help states and school districts develop, disseminate and implement effective policies for children and families. Schools are on the front line with hungry children entering classrooms every day and have a special obligation to ensure those children have the healthy food they need to concentrate and thrive.