When school lunch goes unpaid

New Mexico is first state to ban lunch shaming policies, similar bills pending in California and Texas
By: | May 18, 2017

Lunch shaming is the sort of term that never existed until this past spring, when it was seemingly everywhere. It refers to cafeteria policies advocates say punish students who are unable to pay for their meal, such as by taking the lunch away, or having them stand in a separate line from their peers for different food.

In April, New Mexico became the first state to ban such policies, including throwing meals in the trash after they’ve been served or requiring students to do school chores or other work to pay off their debt.

Similar bills are pending in California and Texas.

Even donors helped one district in Florida. More than $7,000 was donated to Palm Beach County schools to chip away at the lunch debt among the district’s students, according to the PalmBeachPost.com. It helped more than 700 students out of debt, but more than 9,000 students remain in debt.

Many districts continue to serve students who can’t pay while the charges add up. The question is how to recoup that debt from parents without punishing students.

“When you’re looking at taxpayer money to cover that, that’s not OK” says Michael Daniels, superintendent of the Canon-McMillan School District, located near Pittsburgh, where lunch debt has totaled $100,000.

The district made headlines in September 2016 when, in a viral Facebook post, a cafeteria worker said she resigned after being forced to take hot lunches away from students who couldn’t pay or owed money. The district disputes her story.

This school year, Canon-McMillan began sending weekly notices to parents reminding them of their debt. Those with $50 or more may be turned over to a collection agency.

How to collect?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reimburses schools for free or reduced-price meals, will require all schools participating in the program to adopt a policy on how handle the issue of unpaid meals by July 1, 2017.

While it is up to local authorities to determine the details of their policy, the USDA has suggested strategies. It says districts should encourage more families to sign up for free or reduced lunch by promoting the program year-round, working with community groups to identify eligible children and helping parents complete the application.

It also recommends school officials communicate discretely with families to work out a payment plan and adopt payment methods that make it easier for parents to keep up with accounts.

A 2016 School Nutrition Association survey found 82 percent of districts offered parents online payment options, while 62 percent notify families of low account balances through automated phone calls, texts or emails.

“The issue of students arriving in the cafeteria without money in their accounts or money to pay for their meals is a common one, but schools for the most part are finding ways to address that” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the nutrition association.

“Ideally the meals would be covered for all students, but there’s no funding in place for that.”

As for what not to do, the USDA discourages practices that single out students who owe money, such as requiring they use a different serving line in the cafeteria or using hand stamps, stickers or other physical markers. This punishment has recently been reported in some districts.

Abby Spegman is a freelance writer based in Washington.