Unpaid Lunch BillsAcross the state, around 11am, millions of students flood cafeterias ready to eat. Many have packed lunches from home. Others buy their lunches from the school cafeteria. As students approach the cash register they enter a pin number, say their name, or pay for the meal with cash. What about those who can’t pay? What about those whose parents didn’t add money to their account?
Unfortunately, more than three-quarters of schools report they have some amount of school meal debt. They tackle this issue in various ways, none of which are appetizing.  These include:

-          stamping a child’s hand,

-          offering students an alternative meal, like a cheese sandwich or cereal bar,

-          making them work for their meal by cleaning classrooms or sweeping the cafeteria, or

-          no meal at all.

Sometimes, meals are thrown out in front of the student, and the student leaves empty-handed.

While the state’s Department of Education is working to correct lunch shaming policies, Delegate Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) filed a bill (HB50) to give the issue a legislative punch. This bill aims to address the stigma, embarrassment, and shame students feel when given an alternative lunch, forced to work for their food, or given a public identification such as a stamp. These shameful acts would be prohibited. To keep children out of a process they should never have been a part of, communications about debt and adding money to accounts would solely be between the school and parents or legal guardians.

“In an effort to alert parents that a student’s school lunch account is out of money, some schools use what I believe are embarrassing tactics,” states Delegate Hope.  “I don’t think it’s deliberate but the result can be the same and I just believe there’s a better way to communicate this message to parents. This legislation will require schools to think of more creative ways to communicate this message to parents in a way that doesn’t inadvertently embarrass children.”

Many of the students who accumulate a meal debt come from low-income households that already struggle with finances. Due to this fact, we want to see schools adopt programs that ensure all students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals receive them. Federal programs like the Community Eligibility Provision not only ensure that students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals receive them but potentially benefit the entire student population by making their meals free as well.

This issue isn’t specific only to Virginia. Other efforts are catching fire across the nation. New Mexico passed a similar anti-shaming law in April, the first of its kind, while other states are seeing cafeteria workers quit or pay for meals out of their own pockets rather than continue with current practices. A nationwide increase of individuals donating to pay off remaining balances was started from a tweet. This issue knows no political party or demographic. Other issues may be divisive but few enjoy the bipartisan support that anti-shaming bills gather.

Current lunch-shaming policies don’t provide solutions, only embarrassment and hunger. No student deserves to be stigmatized due to their parents’ inability to pay. The state legislation is a great effort, but the real work needs to be done within each one of our children’s school districts. Here’s what you can do:

ACTION:

  1. Contact your delegate and urge them to support HB50.
  2. Reach out to your local school’s nutrition department and ask them about what they do to collect unpaid meal debt and what happens when children don’t have money for lunch.
  3. Talk to them about the above issues.
  4. Have a polite conversation, hang up, and then let us know you did it!

 


 By Kathleen Murphy
Child Nutrition Specialist
Kathleen@vplc.org
Virginia Hunger Solutions