It happens across the country: children either cannot afford to or don’t have the money to pay for their school lunch.
The School Nutrition Association reported that 76 percent of America’s school districts have school lunch debt. This has led to a trend called “school lunch shaming,” where children are denied a meal at school or simply given a cold sandwich because of their financial circumstance.
Witnessing a child go hungry at school has resulted in numerous actions by personnel like the Colorado cafeteria worker who said she’d been fired for paying for a first-grader’s meal and the Pennsylvania school employee who quit in protest after being forced to take food away from a student who the district said already owed $25.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school meals, wants to put a stop to this and has issued a mandate that districts have a written policy in place by July 1.
The USDA wants school officials to stop embarrassing and singling out students who don’t have the cash, they want school lunch shaming to cease.
USDA officials said the practice of shaming has become widespread as a 2014 report found that nearly half of all districts used some form of shaming to compel parents to pay bills — about 45 percent withheld the hot meal and gave a cold sandwich, while 3 percent denied food entirely.
While efforts to reach DC Public Charter Schools officials were unsuccessful, those at D.C. Public Schools said they support student health and achievement by ensuring all students have access to nutritious meals every day.
“Seventy-six percent of DCPS students qualify for free and reduced meals,” said Janae Hinson, DCPS deputy press secretary. “DCPS students who are classified as free or reduced, or who attend a Community Eligibility Provision school, receive school lunch at no charge to the students.”
Students who do not qualify for free and reduced meals pay for their lunch.
“If there are insufficient funds in the student’s meal account, the student still receives a meal and the student’s meal account will show a negative balance with the associated cost,” Hinson said.
Importantly, there are no alternative meals served to students with negative balance, she said.
That’s vital because of what’s happened in other school districts. In Alabama, a child was stamped on the arm with “I Need Lunch Money,” while a Utah elementary school threw away the lunches of about 40 students with unpaid food bills.
Hazel Compton, 12, told the New York Times that she remembered being given a sandwich of white bread with a slice of cheese instead of the hot lunch served to other children at her Albuquerque elementary school. A district spokeswoman said the sandwich met federal requirements.
“They would use the sandwich like a threat,” Hazel recalled. “Like, ‘If you don’t want it, your parents have to pay.’”
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 instead.
“If you didn’t eat the lunch, they were just going to throw it away,” she told The New York Times. “It seems unfair to me to expect a bunch of kids to be responsible for putting money in their lunch accounts when they don’t even handle their own funds.”
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.
“Notices are sent home automatically when they go below $5, so it shouldn’t be a surprise,” Stessman said. “They should know before they get to the cashier.”
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 children who cannot pay for food.
“It has been a longstanding issue in schools, one that’s gone on for decades,” said Kevin W. Concannon, who served as the department’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services in the Obama administration.
Approximately 20 million children — about 40 percent of all American students — receive free lunches, which reportedly counts as a significant increase from 13 million in 2000. School lunch debt has fallen to about $61,000 this year from about $180,000 just four years ago, CNN reported. But there are still more than 4,000 students carrying debt.
“The kids we’re most concerned about are kids on reduced-price school meals who are struggling to come up with the co-pay of 40 cents at lunch,” Crystal FitzSimons, a director at the Food Research and Action Center, told CNN.
A family of four earning under $31,400 can get free lunch for their children. The reduced lunch cutoff stands at about $45,000 for a family of four.
Hinson stressed that DCPS isn’t shaming its students.
“All DCPS students use a student meal account when going through the lunch line to receive a meal, even if the meal is free,” she said. “This eliminates any apparent distinction between students who receive free lunch and students who pay for meals.”