In some parts of the country, children who have delinquent school lunch accounts are still treated shamefully. Some lunchroom workers mark kids’ arms with embarrassing “I need lunch money’’ stamps, or serve cold cheese sandwiches as alternatives to hot lunches. In the worst cases, they trash the food, right in front of the kid with the unpaid bill and the rest of the students in the cafeteria.
Children should not be publicly humiliated or go hungry due to the failures of grown-ups.
That’s why federal guidelines that went into effect this month on handling school lunch debt are welcome. Beginning last week, the U.S. Agriculture Department requires school districts to adopt meal-debt policies and to inform parents about problems at the beginning of the school year.
Although the agency’s directive does not specifically ban some tactics, it does encourage schools to work closely with parents to address delinquent accounts and to ensure that kids get meals. The smart federal action was taken following a 2014 Agriculture Department report that confirmed the widespread use of shaming to compel parents to pay bills.
Locally, in 2014, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid surveyed state school districts and learned that more than 40 had immediately or eventually refused hot lunches to students who don’t pay. To our state’s credit, many Minnesota schools took those reports to heart and developed different practices before the federal guidelines went into effect. Gov. Mark Dayton proposed and the Legislature passed a law requiring schools receiving school lunch aid to make free lunch available to all students who qualify. And by state statute, schools must ensure that reminders for payment of outstanding meal balances do not demean or stigmatize any child.
The state’s three largest districts — Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul and Minneapolis — report that they make sure that eligible students receive lunches. In the core city districts, successful efforts to raise money privately to pay delinquent lunch bills helped support the program.
Anoka-Hennepin and some other districts say their nonpayment issues come from families that, according to guidelines, should be able to afford the $2.55 to $3.00 lunches. The reasons they fall behind vary; parents who have lost jobs and fallen on harder times could be eligible for free lunches without realizing it. District are now encouraged to reach out to those families to provide eligibility information.
Some who don’t pay apparently believe that if other students get free lunches, they should, too. In some cases, when gentler efforts have failed, districts turned over outstanding bills to collection agencies. Parents who can afford the meals but choose to stiff their districts should understand that when schools must buy meals with general funds, resources may be removed from functions such as buying books or adding staff members.
But however school districts, which are accountable to taxpayers, rightly seek to collect money that is rightly owed, it should be done among adults — never by embarrassing kids.