There is a new trend these days across the United States called lunch shaming, where unpaid lunch bills in school districts are making the news.
In July, the Wyoming Valley West School District, in Luzerne County, threatened to have children placed in foster care if their parents didn’t pay an outstanding lunch debt of $22,476.
Todd Carmichael, the CEO and co-founder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, offered to pay the debt. The school board president refused.
Carmichael sent a letter to the district.
“By saying no, you are not just shaming families who elected you, but you are placing this burden on taxpayers and that is completely unfair,” Carmichael said, as reported by ABC News.
“I know what it means to be hungry. I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food,” Carmichael said.
The school board reversed its decision and accepted the donation.
Another incident that made the news in August was the student in Ohio who had his hot lunch taken away because his grandmother owed $9.75 in unpaid lunch debt. The hot lunch was replaced with a cheese sandwich, a side dish and a milk. This made the news because the event took place on the boy’s birthday. His grandmother had applied for free/reduced-cost lunches, and this was the balance due while the paperwork was being processed. In an interview, the grandmother said her grandson was bullied because she owed the money.
Fortunately, this trend does not happen in all districts.
In the East Penn School District, for the 2018-19 school year, the lunch debt reached $20,844.29. The district does not require the student with a negative balance to take an alternate meal.
“The East Penn School District specifically created our food service policies to maintain the integrity and dignity of our students and families,” the district said.
In the Salisbury Township School District, for the 2018-19 school year, there were 123 students with a negative balance — for a total of $7,450.71. The district does not require students to take a different lunch if they have a negative balance in their account. The lunch purchase includes an entrée, vegetable and milk.
“We encourage all families to apply for the federal free/reduced meal program. Families should also be aware of the new meal charge guidelines located on the district website, salisburysd.org,” Superintendent Dr. Randy Ziegenfuss said.
In fact, the National School Lunch Program is a federal-assisted meal program that assisted 30.4 million children in 2016. The free and reduced lunch program is a state program that works in conjunction with the federal program.
Research shows healthy meals are an essential component to learning and growing. The Pennsylvania Department of Education says more than 1 million children and students receive nutritious meals through these services.
Each school district has forms available for families to complete to enroll their children in the program.
Years ago, when my children were in school, the cafeteria personnel would know who was on an assistance program by the type of lunch ticket they had. This discouraged families from enrolling in the program. Now, all students use the same system, whether it be a swipe card or a student identification number to pay for lunch.
I’m glad students are not held responsible for their parents’ unpaid lunch debt, and I’m glad there is total confidentiality when it comes to who pays full price and who is on a free or reduced program.
I also understand trying to make ends meet.
If a parent or guardian does not qualify for the free and reduced lunch program and is feeling the pressure of mounting debt, perhaps packing their child’s lunch is an alternative. There are many food banks in the area that can assist with lunch staples.
I packed lunches for many years at the request of my children, and I knew many families who did the same. Some families packed lunches due to allergies, so you will see a variety of lunch alternatives each day.
Our school districts will not let a student go hungry but do have plans in place to collect the unpaid money. The students should be concentrating on learning and growing rather than contemplating if they will be shamed by the meal they are eating at school.
East Penn Press