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Indiana Schools Grapple With Federal Lunch Debt Mandate

North Lawrence Community Schools absorbs the cost of unpaid lunches.

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You’ve probably heard of the term “lunch shaming.”

It’s made headlines across the country as school districts struggle with how to pay for meals when their students can’t. The School Nutrition Association says about 75 percent of districts had some unpaid lunch debt at the end of the year. New rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture mean all public schools must put the lunch debt policies they’ve been practicing in writing by July 1.

North Lawrence Community Schools: $38,000 In Lunch Debt

School is out for the summer, but the cafeteria at Bedford Middle School still fills with the sounds of children.

“We have the biggest restaurant in town,” says North Lawrence Community Schools Superintendent Gary Conner.

North Lawrence Community Schools offers a free summer feeding program. Cooks pump out an average of 35 breakfasts and 160 lunches each day. Today a crowd favorite is on the menu: chicken strips.

“Our policy is we’re going to feed our kids even if they don’t have money with them,” Conner says.

“Our policy is we’re going to feed our kids even if they don’t have money with them.”

It’s a policy that extends beyond summer break. The school board adopted a policy last year that ensures if students don’t have money to pay for lunch, they’ll still get the same tray of food as everyone else.

“We want to make sure the kids come to the cafeteria and it’s a place where they can relax and enjoy their meal and not feel any pressure when they come into the cafeteria,” says Food Services Director Stacie Green. “We may be their only happy, smiling hello face of the day.”

But that policy comes at a price. North Lawrence Community Schools currently has $38,000 in food services debt because it absorbs the costs of unpaid lunches. Each year, the district pays off the lunch debt of its graduating class.

“If you think of every child as being priceless, then it’s a pretty reasonable cost that we’re willing to absorb,” Conner says.

For many schools, it’s not quite as simple.

Monroe County Community School Corporation: $11,447 In Lunch Debt

The Monroe County Community School Corporation is reconsidering the policy it formally adopted last month, after hearing nothing but opposition during a school board meeting earlier this week.

Celestina Garcia broke into tears as she addressed the board.

“I know the world is driven by money, but children are not fiscal amounts,” Garcia says.

“It was for somebody in middle school pretty humiliating.”

Garcia attended a school outside of the corporation that had a lunch debt policy similar to MCCSC’s, where she had her lunch taken away.

“It was, for somebody in middle school, pretty humiliating,” she says. “It felt like everybody was looking at you, even if it wasn’t true.”

MCCSC’s policy allows students who have a negative balance in their lunch accounts to charge a limited number of meals to their accounts before being served an alternate meal of a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich. Full-pay students can charge up to three meals, ranging from $8.30 at the elementary schools to $8.75 at the high schools. Reduced-pay students can charge up to $2.15, which is a little over five meals.

The district has more than $11,000 in lunch debt from this past school year. Federal regulations stipulate it must pay that balance with money from the general fund. That’s the same account that’s used to pay for teachers and curriculum.

Several parents who spoke out argued the corporation is unfairly punishing children for an issue beyond their control.

“It actively chooses humiliation of a child as a means to collect money,” says Kayte Young. “This is not respect, this is not nurturing and this is not empowerment. In fact, it looks a lot like bullying.”

The comments led Superintendent Judy DeMuth to agree to rework the lunch debt policy and bring it back to the board next month. MCCSC could look to other districts, like the Greenfield-Central Community School Corporation, for ideas.

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Greenfield-Central Community Schools: $9,000 In Lunch Debt

A large group of students lines up outside the cafeteria window at the Hancock County Boys & Girls Club. Many of them attend Greenfield-Central Community Schools, which offers a free summer meal program here. The students smile as they pick up their trays of food and carry them outside to enjoy in the sunshine. The staff here knows how important having a warm meal is each day.

“They’re at that time frame in their lives where they need nutrients and food to stay stimulated, especially during the school year,” says Unit Director Candace Sexton.

Greenfield-Central used to have a similar policy to MCCSC’s, where students with lunch debt got a “sandwich of shame” in place of a regular lunch. Under that policy, the district accrued about $9,000 in debt last year.

Although it could end up costing more, Greenfield-Central is taking a new approach.

“Putting them in this position where we’re trying to motivate a small child to motivate their parents to send some money to school, we just thought we could go at it a different way.”

“Starting next school year the board’s allowed us to change our policy for meal charging so that the younger children will get a regular tray, regardless of their account balance,” says Business Manager Tony Zurwell.

After about a month of no payment, the district will attempt to recoup the accrued debt through collections, removing the child from the process.

“Putting them in this position where we’re trying to motivate a small child to motivate their parents to send some money to school, we just thought we could go at it a different way,” Zurwell says.

Greenfield-Central also uses donations from its Feed the Future Fund to help cover some of the meals. So far there’s only been $140 donated to the account.

Zurwell says the lunch debt issue is evidence of a larger problem: not all students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are signed up. And, even those who are still struggle.

“We’ve actually found that the reduced students are actually more in harm’s way because it’s not free,” he says. “You’ve got to come up with 40 cents.”

Zurwell says families who don’t qualify for the program can struggle, too.

Some Legislators Push To End Lunch Shaming

Some states are taking steps to ban so-called lunch shaming policies.

As NPR reports, New Mexico state Sen. Michael Padilla authored a bill inspired by his experiences as a child:

The Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act requires that all students have access to the same lunch and ends practices like trashing lunches that have been served to students who can’t pay, or making students do chores to work off debt.

“A 6-year-old maybe up to about an 11- or a 12–year-old, a 14-year-old, they have no power to fix this issue and to resolve this,” Padilla says. “If their parents have debt in the lunchroom, then that is not something that they have control over, and I don’t know why we’re punishing them. So this prohibits that — it outlaws that — and it focuses more on the child’s well-being rather than the debt itself.”

The law also mandates that schools assist students in signing up for free and reduced-price lunches.

Several other states are considering similar measures. There’s also a proposal in Congress called the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, which would ban schools from punishing children who can’t pay for lunches.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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