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Upcoming legislation could put an end to ‘lunch shaming’ in public schools

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Although school is out, school districts across Indiana are working toward a deadline this summer.

By July 1, every district in the country is required to have a written policy on how to deal with a student’s lunch debt. Based on legislation in Congress, part of the policies being constructed may eventually become illegal.

“Lunch shaming” and “alternative meals”

At issue is a series of lunchroom practices that many critics call “lunch shaming.” These are policies that single out school children who have negative balances on their food accounts, namely by giving them an alternative meal – often a cheese sandwich or peanut butter sandwich – when a child’s account is negative. It can also involve throwing away the child’s food in front of them, stamping their hand like one school in Alabama or making them clean lunch tables at the end of the lunch period.

“It’s not the kids’ fault, so why should they be given something alternate?”

In 2013, Beech Grove City Schools within Marion County outlawed alternative meals and all forms of lunch shaming in the district. Before then, if a student’s account showed a negative balance when their school ID was scanned in the lunch line, the entrée on the student’s tray would be thrown away and the student would be given a cheese or peanut butter sandwich instead.

“It’s not the kids’ fault, so why should they be given something alternate?” asks Beth Skirvin, the district’s Food Service Liaison – an assistant manager for the district’s food services division. “Every child has the right to eat and they can’t learn if they don’t eat.”

Skirvin has worked in school cafeterias in Beech Grove for nearly twenty years and now trains other cafeteria workers on how to handle its 3,160 students.

“When I train my employees and the cashiers, I always tell them ‘be nice to that child. We’re the only ones that do not expect anything from them. We’re just there to feed them and show them some compassion,’” says Skirvin.

Lunch shaming has become a heated issue in school districts around the country. In March, the state of New Mexico became the first to ban all forms of lunch shaming in school districts.

The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017

In May, a bipartisan group of three senators and five representatives submitted twin proposals — House Bill 2401 and Senate Bill 1064 — named the “Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017.” The act forbids schools from “public identification or stigmatization” of children who do not have enough money for lunch.

“The point is don’t single out these kids and give them a lunch that is inferior to send a message that they’re somehow different,” says Democratic senator, Martin Heinrich.

The New Mexico senator co-sponsored the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act after seeing the overwhelming response for a similar ban on lunch-shaming in his home state.

“We had school districts in New Mexico where they got a cheese sandwich with two pieces of white bread and a slice of American cheese and it became very evident to the other kids who these children were,” says Heinrich. “This was the fault of the parents for not settling up the lunch debt, and really it got pushed off on the children and stigmatized them in a way that made it harder for them to learn.”

Adam Baker, Press Secretary for the Indiana Department of Education, says his department does not believe lunch shaming is happening in central Indiana.

A 2014 report from the USDA found that nearly half of all districts used some form of shaming to compel parents to pay their child’s negative lunch bill. About 45 percent withheld the hot meal and gave a cold sandwich, while three percent denied food entirely.

“Lunch shaming is not acceptable by any means,” says Baker. “It’s something that we would push across the state and it’s something we let our schools know. At no time do we want a child to be signaled out [or] do we want a child to feel embarrassed, by any means.”

“Lunch shaming is not acceptable by any means.”

The list below shows a sample of school districts in central Indiana offering an alternate meal or entree when a student’s account is in the negative. The alternate meal is given as a courtesy, sometimes at the school’s expense to allow kids to get at least something to eat:

  • Avon Community Schools
  • Brownsburg Community Schools
  • Carmel Clay Schools
  • Center Grove Community Schools
  • Franklin Township Community Schools
  • Hamilton Southeastern Schools
  • Plainfield Community Schools

The USDA does not have a policy against offering alternate meals, however in its publication “Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge,” it discourages actions including “throwing a child’s meal in the trash if they are unable to pay” and “serving unappealing alternative meals with low nutritional value as a strategy to embarrass children with unpaid meal debts.”

The use of alternate meals could come into question if the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 is passed in the House and Senate, which could ultimately affect the policies each district is constructing now.

The evolution of the July 1 deadline

In June 2016, the USDA concluded it would not create a blanket policy regarding food debt and would instead allow each school district to manage negative accounts on its own.

At that point, it set the rule stating that by July 1, 2017, school districts would be required to have a policy in place to deal with school lunch debt. The policy will govern how much, if any amount, students can charge in the cafeteria before they are given an alternate meal. It will also establish at what point parents are contacted regarding negative accounts and when those accounts are turned over to a collections agency.

“As we talk about that July 1st date, that is one of the most important things that’s coming up is that schools set a policy and make it very clear to themselves, and to their body of students and the parents,” says Baker.

The Indiana Department of Education began educating schools in October 2016 about the impending requirements from the USDA. Baker says the DOE has used field representatives to visit districts to prepare them for the change, ever since.

“We’re asking every district to develop a very clear policy as far as ‘this is our lunch program, these are the meals we’re going to provide,’” says Baker. “We don’t want to determine what each district can do because we have found so much success across the state in school districts coming up with plans to meet their needs.

Both the USDA and the Indiana DOE are encouraging districts to post their policies online and in student handbooks so that the individual policies are clearly stated and easily accessible.

Collecting “noncollectable” debts

After several unsuccessful attempts to reach parents, districts are left no choice but to turn over negative food accounts to collections agencies. Each district determines how frequently they turn over accounts and at what balance.

For example, Beech Grove’s policy is to turn over accounts deemed noncollectable, once a year, if they are in excess of $50. If the collections agency is successful in recovering any money, Skirvin says 97 percent of the money collected goes to the school district while the collections agency keeps 3 percent as a fee.

Other Central Indiana school districts have a lower threshold. Avon Schools, Franklin Township Schools and Hamilton Southeastern schools each turn over noncollectable negative accounts to collections at $20. The threshold at Carmel-Clay schools is slightly higher at $30.

Avon Schools has worked with the Hendricks County Prosecutor’s Office on past cases involving bad checks, according to the district’s Community Relations Coordinator, Stacey Moore. Moore says the district has been fortunate enough to not turn any negative accounts over to collections in the last four years.

Increasing applications for Free & Reduced Lunch

Skirvin and Baker both believe the problem of indebted accounts could be curbed by the administration within schools taking the time to file more Free and Reduced Lunch applications.

“I would rather process 3,160 applications for Free and Reduced Lunch and be denied than have even one child go into the negative when they should be getting a free meal,” says Skirvin.

The updated federal poverty guidelines show who would be eligible for free or reduced price school meals. For example, a family of four with a household income under $31,980 would be eligible for free meals at school. That same family could have a household income up to $45,510 and still be eligible for reduced price meals at school.

“One of the things that we encourage districts [to do] is proactively stay on top of [Free and Reduced Lunch Applications] in your community,” says Baker. “So as you start to see this increase of debt, reach out to the parent proactively. Have that conversation with them to say ‘Hey, do you want to come in, do we need to talk, do you want to fill out this paperwork?’ It’s very possible they meet these Free & Reduced guidelines.”

“I would rather process 3,160 applications for Free and Reduced Lunch and be denied than have even one child go into the negative when they should be getting a free meal.”

In Beech Grove, 68 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced meals, while 42 percent of all of the district’s students carry a negative balance. The district’s food service division carries a $124,000 school meal debt which has prevented the district from updating cafeteria equipment.

Skirvin says the highest debt she has seen from an individual student at the district is $1,006. Every student is required to have a balance of $0 before graduation or they will not be allowed to walk across the graduation stage.

Due to federal rules regarding Free and Reduced Lunch, the debt a student accrues stays with them and does not get paid by federal dollars, retroactively. This is why the Department of Education wants districts to stay on top of negative accounts so that as soon as a student gets in the negative, someone in the district is working to get them a Free and Reduced Lunch application.

Lunch Angels

During the school year, Beth Skirvin runs a monthly report showing the number of negative student food accounts exist within the district. The consistently high total took an emotional toll on Skirvin, who says she began to search for options that would relieve the debt and help the students.

“I wanted something in black and white to tell me ‘This is what to do and how to do it.’ And I just really couldn’t find anything real definitive,” said Skirvin.

Her national search for a solution landed her on a website for a Texas program called “Feed the Future Forward,” which she would eventually model her Beech Grove program, Lunch Angels, after.

Feed the Future Forward is a non-profit organization that educates parents on financial help available to pay for meals, as well as raises money to pay delinquent accounts so that no child is discriminated against in the lunch line.

“I thought, why don’t we ask some of these businesses, some retired teachers,” says Skirvin. “Let’s tell them ‘We’ve got kids who are struggling and hungry and would you like to help us feed them?’”

Skirvin’s Lunch Angels program will pay the debts of graduating high school seniors first, since their negative accounts will prevent them from walking across the stage at graduation. As more money is donated, the funds will pay down the debts of the oldest students first.

Other local districts have relied on donations to pay student meal debt. In Brownsburg Community School Corporation, faith-based organizations anonymously donate funds to reconcile negative balances for students, according to Communications Coordinator Vicki Murphy.

In the Plainfield Community School Corporation, school leaders created the “Hungry Jack” account – which is a voluntary fund at certain schools within the district. Food Services Director Kelly Collins says people can contribute money to those accounts so that no child has to worry about getting an alternative meal. Collins says the kitchen manager at each school where it’s offered sends an email when the Hungry Jack account balance is low, at which point many teachers and community members contribute.

Within the Carmel-Clay School District, so-called “angel” donors regularly donate hundreds of dollars to help cover the costs for kids with negative accounts. According to community relations liaison, Tamara Sander, those donations are typically made at random around the holidays and the end of the school year.

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