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Shamed in the Lunch Line

Cold PB&Js for students who can’t pay? Some states are saying no.

You’ve probably seen the news stories: A child goes through the school lunch line, but because of a negative balance in the family’s lunch account, a cafeteria worker denies the student a hot lunch—or even throws it in the trash—and hands over something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In July, a school district in Luzerne County, Pa., took things a step further, threatening parents who had unpaid lunch fees with the possibility that their children could be placed in foster care.

The county manager assured parents that that wouldn’t happen. But while it might be easy to write off these so-called lunch shaming incidents as scattered events that went viral, the issue of unpaid meal balances is a real one for school districts. It’s one that has been made trickier by federal policy dating from late in the Obama administration: The U.S. Department of Agriculture required school districts to develop some kind of policy on how to handle the delinquent balances, but did not specify what they had to require.

Still, the narrative that children across the country are getting their hot lunches snatched out of their hands overstates what’s really going on, according to Crystal FitzSimons, who directs the Food Research and Action Center’s work on school nutrition programs. “It isn’t happening in every cafeteria,” she says, “but it is happening, and we do need to address it.”

At least 18 states now have some kind of legislation dealing with lunch shaming, according to FitzSimons’ advocacy group. The laws in California, New Mexico, New York and Oregon are deemed the gold standard by child nutrition advocates because they offer a hot meal regardless of whether a child has debt and don’t allow public reprimanding or stigmatizing, such as a hand stamp.

Those states’ laws also require school officials to reach out to families about options. “Often when families accrue debt, it usually means they now qualify for a free or reduced cost lunch, so working on communicating that with them is important,” FitzSimons says. “The issue is a complicated one because districts do struggle with meal fees and some districts do have meal debt. But we think the focus should be on the parents and how to deal with them.”

State laws limiting lunch shaming might be seen as an unfunded mandate on school districts. Since Oregon enacted its legislation prohibiting schools from checking a student’s balance when handing out lunches, the state’s school districts have accrued more than $1.3 million in unpaid lunch debt, according to the Oregon Association of School Business Officials.

Here and there, there have been private efforts to pick up the fiscal slack. Maine state Sen. Marianne Moore says that in her district, the local Rotary Club usually covers whatever unpaid lunch debt has accrued over the school year, typically around $10,000.

Her state passed its own anti-lunch shaming bill this year, prohibiting schools from punishing a student whose family owes money. Moore, a fiscally conservative Republican, co-sponsored the legislation and says that when she traveled around the state talking about it, she heard from school officials about how much in lunch deficits they’d already accumulated. “That was always the complaint,” Moore says. “They would say it’s costly, that they can’t afford it.” 

But Moore feels passionately that every child should have access to a hot lunch because “it isn’t their fault they’re in debt, it’s their parents.” Still, she says she does understand that it could put some schools in a financial bind. “A lot of schools are going to have to get creative with funding,” she says. 

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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