Utah school districts looking to end 'lunch shaming'
SANDY, Utah (AP) - Nearly half of the nation's school districts have resorted to some form of "lunch shaming" of students to compel their parents to pay overdue school lunch bills, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some districts throw away students' meals, provide less desirable options or stamp children's hands to remind parents that their child's account is in arrears.
Marti Woolford, nutrition initiatives director for the nonprofit advocacy organization Utahns Against Hunger, says all such approaches are wrongheaded.
"That's not OK. It's not the child's responsibility. What we know about kids who live in poverty, they have really stressful lives. Add this stress to a child's life and it's going to interfere with their ability to learn," she said.
Lunch shaming is not a new problem, but the USDA wants schools across the country, by July 1, to have policies in place that state how they will handle situations where students do not have money in their lunch accounts or cash on hand to pay for meals.
Recently, the Canyons Board of Education delved into that task, discussing a first draft of a proposed policy that largely reflects existing practices of the district.
In Canyons District, schools do not withhold food from students whose accounts are in arrears nor are they offered a lesser food option. Children in grades K-8 are served a meal regardless of their debt, said district spokesman Jeff Haney.
"That's important to us. Students can't learn if they're hungry," he said.
The district's practice is that school officials contact parents through multiple means to inform them of debt and ask them to rectify it.
High schoolers are served meals until their accounts reach $10 debt. Once they fall into debt, students are pulled aside and informed they cannot charge meals once the debt exceeds $10, a practice that Canyons School Board President Sherril H. Taylor finds objectionable.
"I don't think we should put this on any student," Taylor said. "Some (high school) kids won't tell their parents and they'll just go hungry. I've seen it happen."
While the school district's existing policy says it can turn unpaid accounts over to collection agencies, it has not taken that step, officials said. Last year, some $16,000 in debt went unpaid.
While the notion of using a collection agency is a sore point for some school board members, the district's general counsel, Dan Harper, said the point of the federal directive is to address punitive practices that humiliate children whose accounts are unpaid.
"It's not 'You need to go collect.' It's 'You don't engage in these food shaming (practices),'" Harper said.
Many Utah school districts have existing policies that meet the federal guidelines, such as the Salt Lake City School District.
Salt Lake District's policy says, in part: "The child nutrition program will not discriminate against, nor physically segregate, any student because of his or her inability to pay the full price of a meal or milk. Schools must ensure that students eligible to receive free or reduced price meals, or whose meal accounts have a low balance or are delinquent, are not easily identifiable or subject to ridicule or embarrassment."
The district's policy was clarified after a nutrition employee in 2014 threw away about 40 lunches of Uintah Elementary School students who had unpaid lunch bills, an incident that made national news.
"The basic premise is the students will be fed a lunch and any financial arrangements will be worked out with their parents," said Salt Lake City School District spokesman Jason Olsen.
Granite School District has a similar protocol that will be codified into policy by the deadline, said spokesman Ben Horsley.
The protocol has steps for repeated contact by school district employees to parents, including school principals when necessary, to rectify the debt or find other solutions.
"No matter the balance, the student is never turned away from eating," the document states.
Woolford said she looks forward to all Utah school districts creating a policy that clarify their practices.
More so, she hopes that school districts' communications with parents help direct struggling household to resources that can help their families, such as determining whether they qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch and breakfast programs.
At schools where 70 percent of students are on free or reduced-price meals, free meals can be offered to all students under USDA policies, Woolford said. More school districts should explore those options, she said.
"We need to dig deeper. I hope that's what we see with these policies that there is an acknowledgement we need to help these families just maybe a little bit more than just having a kid go home with a sticker on their hand. We need to try a little bit harder," she said.