WA bans ‘lunch shaming’ — and school meal debts skyrocket

Nov 20, 2018 by

States across the country are working to ensure no students go hungry if their school lunch accounts go negative, and it’s taking a toll on school budgets.

In Washington, the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights approved earlier this year states:

School personnel, school district personnel, and volunteers are prohibited from taking any action that would publicly identify a student who cannot pay for a school meal or for meals previously served to the student, including requiring the student to wear an identifying marker or serving the student an alternative meal.

The new law, which took effect in June, is designed to end the practice known as “lunch shaming,” or holding students accountable when their lunch accounts run dry or go negative. In many schools, cafeteria workers replace hot lunches with an emergency meal – often a cold sandwich and milk – when students are unable to pay or reach a certain debt threshold, the News Tribune reports.

In some cases, school staff have marked students with a stamp or special sticker to remind their parents to pay up.

Washington is one of 27 states that introduced the Hungry-Free Students’ Bill of Rights since 2017.

“Previously students were only allowed to charge so many meals before the account needed to be paid,” Bethel School District spokesman Doug Boyles wrote in an email to the News Tribune. “Now that restriction has been removed, which is great, but we are incurring more debt than we were before.”

The district typically accumulates up to $3,000 in lunch debt per year, but that total has already reached $21,000 less than halfway through the 2018-19 school year.

It’s a similar situation in Tacoma Public Schools, where current lunch debt stands at about $77,000. About $24,000 of that total carried over from last year, the rest – roughly $50,000 – accumulated between mid-September and November.

Instead of punishing students, the new law requires school staff to provide a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved meal and communicate directly with a student’s parent or guardian about school food funds if the child is under the age of 15. The law requires schools to notify parents of a negative balance within 10 days, and to take specific steps if a student does not pay for more than five meals.

The School Nutrition Association, a national organization representing school food service workers, reports parents neglecting to pay up for school lunches is a problem plaguing schools across the country.

The 2018 School Nutrition Operations Report produced by the SNA shows 75 percent of schools ended the 2016-17 school year with student meal debt. Just over 40 percent of schools reported the number of students who came to school without enough money for lunch increased over the last year.

“We have seen meal debt increasing nationally in recent years as more students arrive in the cafeteria with insufficient funds,” SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner told the News Tribune.

While some schools have adopted innovative ways of dealing with the issue, such as creating a parent portal where they can control debt limits or the actions schools take when their child doesn’t have enough funds, many schools are left scrambling to cover the cost of the free lunch laws.

Students who skipped lunch in the past are now getting in line, while parents who could barely afford lunch before are now thinking twice about forking over the funds, the News Tribune reports.

In Federal Way Public Schools, for example, the current meal balance is nearly $30,000 and ballooning by the day.

“If this continues to grow at the same rate, we could accumulate up to $118,000 in unpaid meals, which is a significant increase from previous school years,” Federal Way spokeswoman Whitney Chiang said.

Source: WA bans ‘lunch shaming’ — and school meal debts skyrocket | EAGnews.org

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