Monroe Co parents voice concerns over lunch shaming
Children shamed so parents will pay the school-lunch bill
In the first day of seventh grade last fall, Caitlin Dolan lined up for lunch at her school in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Hazel Compton, 12, remembers being given a sandwich of white bread with a slice of cheese instead of the hot lunch at her Albuquerque elementary school. Oliver Jane, 15, said that when she had meal debt at Shawnee Heights High School in Tecumseh, Kansas, she was told to return her tray of hot food and was given a cold sandwich. Marty Stessman, superintendent of the Shawnee Heights Unified School District, said that younger children were allowed to take a limited number of meals despite debt, but that high-school students were not. The problem of meal debt is not new, but the issue has received more attention recently because the Department of Agriculture, which oversees school lunch programs, imposed a July 1 deadline for states to establish policies on how to treat kids who can’t pay for food.
After a 2010 overhaul of school nutrition standards, the department heard from schools and advocacy groups about the burden of lunch debt and shaming practices that often result. In March, New Mexico passed a law that directs schools to work with parents to pay debts and ends practices like cold-sandwich substitutes that may embarrass children. Recently, the Houston Independent School District notified its food-service department that children with debt should be served the regular hot meal. Feeding hungry children whose families have meal debt does not solve the problem for schools, which still must grapple with paying the bill. In 2016, the School Nutrition Association published a review of almost 1,000 school-lunch programs, finding that nearly 75 percent of districts had unpaid meal debt.
There’s a catch: Schools must promise they will not give alternative meals to children with unpaid bills. In West Palm Beach, Florida, two high-school juniors started School Lunch Fairy to help erase lunch debts.
Opinion: The trouble with so-called school lunch “shaming” laws
In what is increasingly becoming a larger issue, unpaid meal accounts and the policies districts put into place to take care of such debt is gaining attention-and not for the right reasons. Many child nutrition departments struggle with unpaid meal accounts-sometimes racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. What many not in the industry do not understand is that child nutrition programs are federally funded and mandated programs through the USDA, which requires that those debts be paid off at the end of each school year. If child nutrition can’t get parents to pay up-many employ debt collectors to help out-the district, in many cases, is forced to fork over the money to cover the costs. The other issue with these so-called shaming bills is that no child nutrition employee wants to see a child go hungry.
Districts enact policies to try to reduce the financial burden child nutrition departments have feeding students with no money in their accounts. The USDA recently mandated that all districts must have a policy addressing the issue, though it failed to set standards for how schools should treat such students. A bill working its way through the California state legislature, the Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act of 2017, would require schools to ensure students with unpaid meal accounts not be shamed or treated differently than any other students. Turning the problem around to suggest that child nutrition departments are willingly shaming hungry students is not the answer. Both the New Mexico and California bills have one key word in common: hunger.
That’s the issue we should be focusing on-how we feed the millions of hungry students in our country, many of whom live in economically disadvantaged homes. Programs like the Community Eligibility Provision are a great boon to this issue, but perhaps it’s finally time to take it a step further and provide universal free meals to all students.
Governor Cuomo Announces “Meal Shaming” Ended in All New York Schools
To date, all required schools have successfully adopted and submitted a plan to the New York State Education Department that will address how they prohibit meal shaming and how meal debt will be communicated to parents while ensuring every student is still provided a meal without humiliation or shame. All school plans have been posted on the schools’ websites. Meal shaming is a disgraceful practice in some schools where children are publicly humiliated in front of their peers by adults for not having money for lunch. In many cases, these students are forced to wear a sticker or bracelet, or have their name called over the loud speaker. In other cases, these students are given alternative, lesser quality lunches, such as a cold cheese sandwich, when other students get hot lunches.
In examples from other states, some children are simply being denied food if they cannot pay. The Governor’s 2018-2019 budget amended the New York State Education Law to require all public, non-public and charter schools that require students to pay for a school meal to develop a written plan to ensure that a student with unpaid meal charges is not denied a meal or treated differently than a student who does not have unpaid school meal charges. The schools were required to submit their completed Prohibition Against Meal Shaming plans to the New York State Education Department. Schools and districts already participating in programs that provide free meals to all students, such as the Community Eligibility Provision, were not required to submit plans. The schools must provide students with the meal of their choice.
The schools are also prohibited from engaging in other actions that would shame students or cause embarrassment due to insufficient funds for a school meal or having outstanding school meal debt. The plans require that all applicable staff are trained and fully understand how to properly implement the policy.