Denver Public Schools (DPS) students who have unpaid lunch debt from last school year can still expect a hot meal this fall when they go through the lunch line. That’s because a local nonprofit that encourages children to get involved in giving back to their communities and a Denver business owner have picked up the almost $14,000 tab.
In fact, across the country this past year, individuals and groups have launched similar fundraising campaigns to erase the debt for families who don’t qualify for free lunch but have fallen behind on their lunch accounts. From New York City to Bellevue, WA, community members have used social media and set up online payment accounts so people can contribute.
"The joint lesson there is that it’s really important for us to be working on the inside as well as the outside," says DPS Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova, adding that while families might still accrue debt, the community’s response to the problem shows "how grownups can solve it" without embarrassing children in the lunch room. She also noted that in many schools, principals used local school accounts to cover those debts.
Not every district can turn to donors to make up the deficit when parents who don’t qualify for subsidized meals fall behind on their lunch accounts. But all schools this year are required to have a policy for how they will handle unpaid meal charges.
According to the provision in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010, local education agencies must clearly communicate the policy to all families and to those staff members responsible for implementing it. Districts are also required to keep records of how they shared the information with families and staff members.
In past years, DPS students with lunch debt would have received a cold sandwich and a milk — what is known as an alternate meal in the school food service business. Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association (SNA), says in many cases, school nutrition personnel try to disguise the fact that a student is receiving an alternate meal by letting them come through the line first, for example, or by putting the meals in a brown paper bag so it appears it was packed at home.
"Trying to make sure that kids don’t feel any shame in the lunch line is something that school nutrition professionals have tried to do for a long time," she says, adding that alternate meals were never intended to embarrass students but to keep meal programs "financially stable."
In 2016, SNA issued a report showing that about 75% of school districts had students with unpaid meal debt at the end of the 2015-16 school year, up from 71% in 2014.
According to a 2014 report from the Food and Nutrition Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 47% of schools reported that they went ahead and gave students a full meal, while 39% reported giving an alternate meal when students couldn’t pay. Only 3% reported not serving any type of meal. Another interesting finding was that some districts reported giving a meal to elementary school students who were unable to pay, but not to middle or high school students.
Of course, the cases in which a lunch has been thrown in the trash or a child’s hand has been stamped as an indication that he or she is out of lunch money have drawn the most attention and have led lawmakers in at least one state to enact an “anti-shaming” law.
According to New Mexico’s new Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights Act, schools must serve a USDA reimbursable school meal regardless of whether a student owes money for earlier meals. The law also states that the school “shall not require that a student throw away a meal after it has been served because of the student's inability to pay for the meal or because money is owed for earlier meals.”
New Mexico schools are not allowed to make students wear a wristband, do chores, or use any other practices that would “stigmatize a student.” School officials are also required to check whether the student would automatically be eligible for a free or reduced-price meal because his or her family participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or whether the child is eligible for free or subsidized meals.
Multiple communication strategies urged
Earlier this year, the USDA released guidance on how districts can address unpaid meals. Communication strategies, for example, can include not only a letter to students’ households, but also a posting on the district’s website, a mention in the student handbook and phone call reminders through a district’s automated system.
“Schools have invested in a lot of technology, mobile apps and online payment systems to make it easier [for parents] to stay on top of their payments,” Pratt-Heavner says.
The USDA report clarifies that unpaid debt can be carried over from one school year to the next, which allows districts to create longer payment plans for families and to continue collection efforts even if a child changes schools or moves into another district. When districts are unable to collect the debt, they aren't allowed to cover the loss with funds in their school food service account, so they have to pull from their general fund or other non-federal sources to make up the difference.
The report also notes that many families with lunch account debt would have qualified for free or reduced-price meals anyway and that it’s important to also increase efforts to enroll those children in the program as soon as possible. Many districts now post enrollment links on their homepages or include a form in enrollment packets. Children in low-income families who are already enrolled in SNAP are considered directly certified for subsidized meals, meaning that they don’t have to submit a household application. In addition, USDA has been implementing pilot projects that allow children enrolled in Medicaid to be directly certified.
Some districts, such as Denver, even eliminate the reduced-price category and provide those students with free meals. Students who qualify for the reduced-price meal category — whose families earn between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level — are generally charged about 40 cents for a lunch.
While districts are not able to use school food service funds to cover unpaid debt for those who can pay, they are allowed to use those funds if they decide to eliminate the reduced-price meal category completely. In Maryland, legislation was reduced this year to wipe out the reduced-price category statewide.
The Community Eligibility Provision
Districts with high numbers of students from low-income families are increasingly taking advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which became available nationwide three years ago and allows schools or districts to provide free lunches to all students.
Schools or districts enrolled in the program no longer have to collect enrollment forms from students’ families and instead qualify based on the number of students whose families are enrolled in SNAP. According to the Food Research and Action Center, more than 20,700 schools in 3,538 school districts participated in the program last year.
“For us it was kind of a no-brainer. Our rate was already high,” says Audrey Holtzman, spokeswoman for the Euclid (OH) City Schools, outside Cleveland, which is participating in CEP for the first time this year. “We need to take any roadblock in terms of achievement out of the way. And we know that a kid who is hungry is not going to perform well on a field or on a field trip.”
But Pratt-Heavner notes that CEP doesn’t work for schools in some cases, because while they might have high numbers of low-income families, families don’t always apply for SNAP or other public assistance programs.
Another aspect of school nutrition programs that can lead to feelings of shame for students are what are known as competitive foods — vending machine items or other snacks available for purchase in schools, suggests Sarah Irvine Belson, an associate professor of education at American University in Washington who has conducted research on the connections between school nutrition and academic outcomes.
Even if a student receives free breakfast, lunch and dinner at school, there will be other items sold at school that a child can’t afford. She gave the example of a Washington, DC, high school that was selling pizza as a fundraiser for a sports team.
"You want to participate with the cool kids who are on that team," she says. "This is where we as school leaders need to stand up and say ‘Let’s have a different type of fundraiser’ or support the team in other ways."
Her "plate waste" research also shows that even when meals are provided, students aren’t necessarily eating the food. She urges schools to give students a choice in what’s on school menus by having taste tests, for example, and to incorporate more nutrition activities into the classroom.
The USDA report also suggests that schools work with support services personnel, such as school social workers, to assist families that are struggling financially. In Albuquerque Public Schools, for example, West Mesa High School social worker Toni Sanchez-Romero meets weekly with other members of a health and wellness team. Lunch debt is one of the topics they discuss.
"That is kind of a red flag and trigger to us to look at other kinds of economic impact," she says. "The reality is that many families are very proud and they are not always going to be type to come and ask for help. The sooner we can intervene and be able to offer those supports, the better we are able to build that trust."