Steps In the Right Direction

As many of my readers know, I am currently a candidate for School Board Director for my local School District.  In order to be informed about the issues coming before the Board, I have been attending the monthly School Board meetings.  At the recent June meetings I learned about two positive changes happening in our District.  Starting during classroomthe 2017-18 school year, every student enrolled in K-4th grade will be able to receive breakfast and lunch at no charge.  In addition to providing free breakfast and lunch to elementary school students, the Board proposed a district-wide policy to guarantee all students with lunch debt will continue to receive a regular lunch regardless of that debt and all attempts to collect payment on lunch debt will be made through contact with parents or guardians, not children at lunch.

My local School District is able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all elementary students in our district through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).  As I explained in my previous post CEP allows qualifying schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all enrolled students without collecting household applications for free and reduced meals.  The schools are then reimbursed for all breakfasts and lunches provided using a formula based on a percentage of enrolled students who participate in other means tested programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).  Participating in this program will help lessen the amount of annual school lunch debt carried by the School District, as many of the children who have school lunch debt live in households which qualify for free or reduced meals but for various reasons do not apply to participate in the program, or households which just miss the threshold to participate in the free or reduced meal program.  Additionally, when a school participates in CEP, the stigma children who have difficulty paying for school meals face is removed because every student is treated the equally by being served the same meal.

Not every school in our District qualifies to participate in the Community Eligibility Provision.  Only three of the elementary schools are eligible, leaving the remaining threeschool lunch schools in the District to provide breakfast and lunch under the same circumstances as previous years.  These remaining three schools will continue to experience cases of school lunch debt as they have in the past.  To address future cases of school lunch debt, the School District has proposed a district-wide policy to only discuss this debt with parents or guardians of the children who carry the debt.  In other words, no action to regarding a child’s school lunch debt will be taken with the child during the during his or her lunch.  Furthermore, any child with school lunch debt will continue to receive the same lunch listed on the daily menu, just like every other student getting lunch.  No more dreaded cheese sandwiches!

These two actions taken by the local School District are exactly some of the steps I suggested needed to be taken to address the problem of school lunch debt, which often leads to lunch shaming.  The District applied to have eligible schools in the district participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, thus taking a step to lower the District’s overall school lunch debt.  The Board then proposed a district-wide policy to cease the practice of singling out and punishing students with school lunch debt by allowing them to only have a cheese sandwich for lunch.  I commend the School Board’s efforts to consider the needs and feelings of the District’s students while taking steps to minimize the amount of future school lunch debt.

Lunch Shaming

girl blue glassesI hadn’t heard of lunch shaming, most people probably hadn’t, until a few months ago.  Now the topic seems to be in the news everywhere, thanks in part to the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights legislation enacted by the New Mexico State Legislature outlawing lunch shaming.  So what is lunch shaming?  School lunch shaming is holding children publicly accountable for any unpaid lunch bills they have accumulated, or in other words, holding children responsible for a debt their parents can not pay.  Some might say school districts have no other choice.  After all, they can not be expected to annually absorb this debt, which for some larger urban districts can reach into the millions of dollars.  What makes this situation news worthy isn’t that school districts are trying to recoup this debt.  They should be.  No, what makes this situation news worth are the tactics many districts use to go about about collecting the debt and perhaps less emphasized, but possibly more important, that this debt exists in 76% of school districts across the United States.

The reason the topic of school lunch debt exploded onto the news scene is due to reports about how some school districts have chosen to handle students who can not pay for lunch.  Angry teachers, cafeteria staff and students report incidents involving cafeteria staff taking a regular lunch away from a child and throwing it away in front of the hungry child and other students before giving the child a less desirable lunch or in a few cases no lunch at all.  Other disturbing examples include stamping or writing on the child’s arm that s/he has unpaid lunch debt.  In the not too distant past, children with lunch debt were made to do chores in the cafeteria in exchange for food, as was the case with Michael Padilla, the State Senator in New Mexico who introduced that state’s anti-lunch shaming legislation.  Of course the more extreme cases of lunch shaming are the ones making the news, but the most common practice is to deny the child with lunch debt the regular hot or cold meal, serving him instead a less desirable meal, usually a cheese sandwich.  In many school districts, no uniform policy addressing school lunch debt exists, leaving each individual school to address the issue of how to deal with students unable to pay for their lunch.  In an effort to remedy the lack of uniform school district policies dealing with children who can not pay for their lunch, the US Department of Agriculture has set a July 1, 2017, deadline for states to establish these policies.

In addition to attempts to prevent school lunch debt from rising during the school year,school boy school districts, as well as the general public, are making attempts to alleviate existing debt.  In districts where the debt is small enough, it may just be absorbed or funds may be shifted from the General Fund to offset the debt.  For many larger districts, however, this is not an option.  Most school district Food Service Managers actively work with families owing school lunch debt to find solutions for paying off the debt.  Additionally, these managers strive to enroll every student who is eligible in the free and reduced school lunch program.  In addition to school districts trying to lessen their meal debt, the general public has gotten involved, especially once reports of lunch shaming started being reported in the news.  According to GoFundMe, at least 30 active campaigns exist to help pay down lunch debt in a particular school district.  Additionally, two high school juniors in West Palm Beach, FL have started School Lunch Fairy, an organization, to help zero out lunch debt in school districts nationwide.  Finally, good Samaritans in scores of school districts have made arrangements with a school district to pay off all or part of that district’s outstanding lunch debt.  (See note at the bottom.)

All of these efforts are laudable, but they are band-aid responses to the problem and more thought needs to go into planning long term solutions.  One of the first places to start would be with what is already in place.  The programs which provide free and reduced breakfast and lunch to children are very successful for the students enrolled in these programs.  School districts should be making every effort to enroll as many of their qualifying students in these programs as they possibly can.  Additionally, school districts with schools whose student population qualifies to be included in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows qualifying schools to provide free breakfast and lunch to all enrolled students without collecting household applications, should take steps to participate in this program if not already doing so.  Both of these programs help provide millions of children with a nutritious breakfast and lunch, but still they fall short of solving the lunch debt problem.  Many eligible families, in spite of a school district’s best efforts, still fail to fill out an application for free lunch and most schools in the United States do not qualify for CEP.  Furthermore, of those school who qualify for CEP, roughly half of them fail to participate in the provision.  The failure of the current programs to fully address the nationwide problem has lead some educators to suggest school busthat maybe schools should just be providing all students with lunch, much in the same way students are provided with textbooks and transportation to and from school.

Equating providing lunch to all students to providing other necessary items for student success, like textbooks or transportation to school, is an interesting concept and one that I am sure will require much more debate, as will other ideas proposed to deal with school lunch debt.  In the meantime steps can and should be taken to alleviate the shame and embarrassment children experience when they have lunch debt.  One of the easiest first steps to take is to do away with the dreaded cheese sandwich.  Why can’t children with school lunch debt just receive the cold meal that is on the menu for the day?  By giving them this meal, these children do not stand out among their peers by carrying the stigma of being unable to afford lunch.  Another practice that should banned immediately is the practice of taking food from a child and throwing it away, particularly in front of the child.  I find this practice incredibly cruel, not to mention offensively wasteful of food and taxpayers’ dollars.

Removing the shame associated with having school lunch debt, some fear, will only cause more families to abuse the system, increasing school lunch debt for school districts.  A certain number of people will always cheat whatever system exists, but little evidence exists to support that the majority of households carrying lunch debt could actually pay for their meals, but instead are attempting to freeload off the system.  What most districts find is that this debt is carried by households who qualify for free/reduced lunch, but are not signed up to participate or by households who just miss the cutoff to qualify.  One anecdotal way school districts know these families are truly struggling rather than freeloading is that they often receive an influx of payments on school lunch debts every other Friday, which is a common payday.

Ask almost any teacher, school administrator, or cafeteria worker in a public school,giggle especially one located in a community with significant poverty, and she will tell you that children come to school hungry every day of the school year.  Research exists showing the negative impact hunger and lack of good nutrition can have on children and learning.  Many of the proposed solutions to the problem of school lunch debt, and the larger underlying problem of childhood hunger will cost money.   As a society we have to decide whether we want to pay the cost to solve a problem in its infancy or wait to pay for the all the repercussions that the problem will cause if allowed to exists unchecked.  Feeding hungry children now is a less costly solution than having to address the cognitive, emotional, and health problems that hunger and the lack of good nutrition cause in children.  Besides, ensuring children in one of the wealthiest nations in the world do not go hungry is the only morally appropriate choice to make.

Note:

In my school district a good Samaritan paid off the entire school lunch debt this year.  I hope she knows what a difference she has made for these families.

On a personal note:

Over the school year I repeatedly fussed at my younger son for how quickly he went through the money we deposited into his school lunch account.  This past week he received his school yearbook, and as I thumbed through the pages looking at how grown up these kids suddenly look, I was stopped by one autograph.  It said, “Thanks for buying me lunch when I didn’t have money.”  I don’t know how many times my son bought lunch for this friend or whether there were others he helped.  I do know I was incredibly proud.

Summer

summerSummer break is almost here!  I always view the approach of summer break with a mixture of excitement and relief, but also with a sense of apprehension.  It is great not to have all the deadlines of school hanging over the household.  To have the freedom to take in a movie, spur of the moment, on a Wednesday night or go on an adventure or just not have to worry about whose assignment is due when.  The apprehension comes from past summer experiences.  Knowing someone will say, usually within the first week, “I’m bored”, which is usually followed by sibling bickering.  Or the dread of the daily battle over the amount of electronic use.  One thing I have never had to worry about, though, is whether my kids were going to be hungry over summer break.

According to the Feeding America website, 22 million children receive free or reduced priced meals in schools.  What do those kids do in the summer when the school doors close?  The Feeding America website also reports that only 2.7 million children receive free or reduced priced meals through the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP).  That is a huge difference in the number of children receiving assistance during the school year and the number receiving assistance in the summer.  Some children probably receive meal assistance through other summer feedingsummer feeding programs that are not operated through SFSP, but the number of American children that are likely to go hungry this summer is still staggering.  Here in Pennsylvania 80% of  the children who qualify for summer feeding programs are not receiving assistance, according to a report by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC).  In my own community, where approximately one third of children in our schools qualified for free or reduced meals, I can only find one program that offers meals for children.  It is a Christian-based youth group facility, that offers an afterschool meal during the school year, which they continue during the summer months as well.  I have to admit I was a little surprised by the lack of options available, locally, for children on summer break and I find it troublesome.

To be honest, until recently I had not given much thought to what the families of kids in the free and reduced breakfast and lunch program did during the summer to replace the meals provided by the schools during the school year.  Now that I know how large the percentage of kids participating in this program is in my local school district and the lack of summer feeding programs in my area, this problem weighs heavily on my mind.  Since my eyes are now open to this problem, I’m sure I will see these kids everywhere–in the library, on the playground, passing pbjby on the sidewalk.  I wonder if our food pantries see an uptick in the number of families coming in over the summer months, either new clients or previous clients who have not needed to come for a few months.  The Chester County Food Bank is currently partnering with the United Way of Chester County in a Peanut Butter and Jelly Drive, so I can only assume they are preparing for this increased need.

While we are talking about kids and lunches, I want to mention the equally troublesome story of Della Curry, an elementary school cafeteria manager in the Denver Metro area, who was just fired.  She was fired for giving a first grade student, who didn’t qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, lunch when she didn’t have the money to buy lunch.  In an interview she admits this isn’t the first time she has done this and does not regret her actions.  In the past few days some questions have arisen about the actual reason Ms. Curry was terminated, but regardless of the reason, this story brings to light the real plight of numerous school children across this country who do not qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, but do not have money for lunch.  To be clear, I am not referring to the child who occasionally forgets lunch money.  These are children who regularly do not have enough money to purchase lunch or bring one from home.  Ms. Curry feels the law governing the free and reduced lunch program needs to be changed.  She believes lunch should just be a part of public schooling and available free to all students and has vowed to work to bring about this change.

One school district that recently made this change a reality is Baltimore City Public Schools.school lunch  All schools in this school district will now offer free breakfast and lunch to every student.  Their ability to provide these meals to all students is the result of a federally funded program for school districts where at least 40% of the population is considered low income.  This program removes the stigma associated with getting free lunch or breakfast, but more importantly, it will also ensure more children get fed, eliminating the problem Della Curry faced.  Finally some good news out of Baltimore!  Baltimore City Public School district isn’t the first district to make this change.  The program is part of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010 and has been made available in certain states since the 2011-2012 school year.  This school year just ending (2014-2015) is the first year the program has been made available to all qualifying schools nationwide.

I don’t have any answers or solutions to offer for any of these problems.  I just encourage you to be aware.  These are kids and they are hungry through no fault of their own.  If you are in a position to help, do so.  Even if it is only to donate a jar of peanut butter and jelly to your local food bank or pantry.