Some Schools Aim to Shame Kids for Lunch-Money Debts

School districts must use general funds to make up for the shortfall, so they sometimes aggressively pursue debtor families.

Kitchen worker Nancy Martinez serves a student a free breakfast at San Marcos Elementary School cafeteria Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Chandler, Ariz.
AP Photo/Matt York
April 24, 2019, 8 p.m.

Making students wear wristbands or handstamps. Forcing them to perform cafeteria chores. Taking away or even throwing out already-served meals. These are some of the ways school districts “shame” students who cannot pay for their lunch.

New legislation from Rep. Deb Haaland and Sen. Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, would prohibit schools participating in the National School Lunch Program from stigmatizing students who are in debt from or cannot pay for meals, a practice commonly known as “lunch shaming.”

School lunches represent half of the Food and Nutrition Service’s child-nutrition spending, totaling $11 billion annually.

The House bill has 11 cosponsors and its Senate companion 13, including a handful of Republicans in both chambers. The current effort is a carryover from the 115th Congress, when Udall and now-Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham introduced bills after New Mexico became the first state to outlaw the practice.

A few states prohibit schools from publicly identifying students with meal debt, while others notify parents of their debts while avoiding identifying the child to their peers.

Incidents at the extremes have garnered media attention; in 2018 the Cranston, Rhode Island school district hired a collection agency to recover $46,000 in debts.

Former Rhode Island state Rep. Robert Lancia, who is from Cranston, introduced anti-lunch-shaming legislation last year prior to the hiring of the collection agency. “I don’t think that should be the child’s problem at all,” said Lancia, a Republican, who introduced his bill after hearing of an incident in which a student’s lunch was thrown out after it was served to them.

Since the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, the Agriculture Department has required districts to have official unpaid-meal policies.

Unpaid lunches can arise from numerous causes, including failure by eligible parents to enroll a child in free- or reduced-lunch programs, or parents not replenishing a student’s lunch-account balance.

However, Udall said refillable accounts are not a cure-all, however: “It is important to recognize that all schools do not have the ability to set up electronic systems and some families and guardians living in rural areas do not have access to broadband, and therefore would face barriers in using such online-payment platforms. And no matter how convenient a payment system is, it is not a remedy for families and guardians who will still struggle to pay for school meals.”

The cumulative amount owed nationwide is unknown, but a School Nutrition Association report from 2018 estimates that 75 percent of districts have some unpaid meal debt. In those districts, the median debt was 0.13 percent of the total food-service budget. That seems like a very small slice of the pie, but Rick Hess, education-policy-studies director at the American Enterprise Institute, said it can be “nontrivial” for a large school district.

Denver Public Schools’s unpaid lunch debt in the 2017-18 school year was $356,000, averaging out to 900 of the district’s 92,000 students receiving an unpaid lunch each day.

Diane Heavner-Pratt, media-relations director for the School Nutrition Association, which supports universal free lunches, explained that since districts cannot pay off debt with leftover federal lunch-program funds, they must resort to other means such as debt collectors and fundraisers.

“Districts are required to cover that cost, and that’s general-education funds,” said Pratt-Heavner. “That’s why you’re seeing school boards and superintendents becoming increasingly alarmed about the impact of some legislation and meal-charge policies that have resulted in large accruals of debt.”

Hess’s view, that states and localities are best able to handle their unpaid lunch debt, is also the USDA’s official guidance, although the agency “strongly discourages” singling out children. Further guidance encourages the lines of communication to go directly from the school to the parents, and to set up user-friendly payment options.

Crystal FitzSimmons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Research & Action Center, disagrees with such federalism-based arguments. “This is all related to a federal program that schools are utilizing, and I think they should take the responsibility to set some standards.”

Lancia and others said parents and schools should work together to ensure that students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches receive them, and the new bills direct USDA to do a thorough distribution of applications. However, as Lancia pointed out, this can be a hurdle in places that have a large number of non-English speakers.

“Some [immigrant] families are concerned about providing that kind of information,” said Pratt-Heavner, noting that the form to enroll in free- and reduced-price meals is “cumbersome” but that the direct-certification process of enrolling students who are on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has helped alleviate the issue.

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