School lunch debt and lunch shaming is a problem that needs a national solution

Over the weekend, California passed a law mandating all students get lunch. Unfortunately, a series of school districts have recently taken steps in the other direction.
Students fill their lunch trays at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, New York on Jan. 25, 2017.
Students fill their lunch trays at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, New York on Jan. 25, 2017.Mary Esch / AP file
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By Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs, Food Research & Action Center

School meals are a key component to student success both in and out of the classroom. But when a child arrives without cash in hand or in her school meal account, the school must decide how to respond. Over the weekend, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that mandates all students are entitled to a school lunch, whether or not they have the funds to pay. This is a strong step in the right direction. Unfortunately, we have seen a series of school districts recently take steps in the other direction, resulting in embarrassment and humiliation for their students.

These practices have included stamping a child’s hand with “I need lunch money,” throwing a child’s meal away after it has been served, giving him or her a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich instead of a hot lunch, barring students from participating in extracurricular activities, and even threatening to put children with outstanding school meal debt in foster care.

Last month, a child had his lunch meal thrown in the trash on his birthday because he accrued $9 in unpaid school meals fees while the school district was still processing his free school meal application.

Last month, a child had his lunch meal thrown in the trash on his birthday because he accrued $9 in unpaid school meals fees while the school district was still processing his free school meal application.

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Make no mistake: Subjecting students to embarrassment because of a lack of funds to pay for school lunch is always unacceptable.

Lunch debt is a longstanding problem for families and schools across the country. Students who just miss the cut off for free school meals in the National School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program and qualify for reduced-price school meals can be charged a maximum of 30 cents per day for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. Those who do not qualify for reduced-price school meals are charged the meal price set by the district. Both of these groups can accrue school lunch debt.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to examine the issue of school meal debt and ultimately required school districts to establish a policy for unpaid school meals fees. The USDA did not, however, establish any national standards for what districts or states must include in their policies, and did not provide any baseline protections for children and families. This is one big reason why the responses to lunch debt vary so widely.

At the federal level, some lawmakers are — fortunately — paying attention.

The No Shame at School Act, introduced by Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Ilhan Omar (both Democrats from Minnesota) would ban any kind of identification of students who cannot pay for lunch at school, like wristbands or hand stamps, and would not allow schools to publish lists of students who owe money for school meals or use debt collectors to recoup meal fees. It also would result in more eligible children being certified for free or reduced-price school meals, and provide schools retroactive school meal reimbursement for students who are certified for free or reduced-price school meals later in the school year.

In an ideal world, school breakfast and lunch — both crucial to students’ learning — would be offered at no charge to all students; this would solve school districts’ challenges with school meal debt and eliminate meal shaming. And there is already a federal option, the Community Eligibility Provision, that allows high-poverty schools to offer meals at no charge to all students. In addition to putting a stop to school meal debt for high-poverty schools and effectively ending shaming and stigma, community eligibility boosts school breakfast and lunch participation and eases the paperwork burden for schools and families by eliminating school meal applications.

According to the Food Research & Action Center’s most recent report on community eligibility, in the 2018–2019 school year, 28,542 schools participated in the program. This school year, even more schools across the country are expected to offer free breakfast and lunch through community eligibility. Yet thousands of schools that could participate have yet to opt in.

To truly solve the issue of school meal debt and ensure all students receive the nutrition they need to learn and thrive, school meals should be offered to all students in all schools at no cost.

While community eligibility has been a game-changer for the schools that are using it, it is only available to those with relatively high numbers of low-income children. To truly solve the issue of school meal debt and ensure all students receive the nutrition they need to learn and thrive, school meals should be offered to all students in all schools at no cost.

At the state level, Oregon is at the forefront of the movement to expand free school meals to more students. This spring, the governor signed the landmark Student Success Act, which will create a new revenue source for education in Oregon. It broadens eligibility for free school meals. In fall 2020, 761 schools in the state will offer free breakfast and lunch to approximately 345,000 students, or 60 percent of all students. Children in families with incomes up to three times the poverty level — $75,000 for a family of four — will be able get free meals at school.

School meals are a key component to student success both in and out of the classroom. But without a strong federal policy in place, the challenges of school meal debt and the associated stigma will continue to be stumbling blocks to children, families, and schools across the country.