Feed­ing the schoolkids

Kenora Daily Miner and News - - LIFE - — The As­so­ci­ated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. — Kelvin Holt, a teach­ing as­sis­tant, watched as a preschool stu­dent fell to the back of a cafe­te­ria line dur­ing break­fast in Killeen, Tex.

“The cash reg­is­ter woman says to this 4-year-old girl, ‘You have no money,’ ” said Holt, de­scrib­ing the in­ci­dent last year.

A milk car­ton was taken away, and the girl’s food was dumped in the trash.

She did not protest, other than to walk away in tears.”

Holt has joined a cho­rus of out­rage against lunch­room prac­tices that can hu­mil­i­ate kids as public school dis­tricts across the U.S. re­think how they cope with lunch debts.

The U.S. Agri­cul­ture De­part­ment is re­quir­ing dis­tricts to adopt poli­cies this month for ad­dress­ing meal debts and to in­form par­ents at the start of the aca­demic year.

The agency is not specif­i­cally bar­ring most of the em­bar­rass­ing tac­tics, such as serv­ing cheap sand­wiches in place of hot meals or send­ing stu­dents home with con­spic­u­ous debt re­minders, such as hand stamps. But it is en­cour­ag­ing schools to work more closely with par­ents to ad­dress delin­quent ac­counts and en­sure chil­dren don’t go hun­gry.

“Rather than a hand stamp on a kid to say,‘I need lunch money,’ send an e-mail or a text mes­sage to the par­ent,” said Tina Namian, who over­sees the fed­eral agency’s school meals pol­icy branch.

Mean­while, some states are tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands, with New Mex­ico this year be­com­ing the first to out­law school meal sham­ing.

Free and re­duced-price meals funded by the Agri­cul­ture De­part­ment’s Na­tional School Lunch Pro­gram shield the na­tion’s poor­est chil­dren from lunch sham­ing. Kids can eat for free if a fam­ily of four earns less $32,000 a year or at a dis­count if earn­ings are un­der $45,000.

It’s house­holds with slightly higher in­comes that are more likely to strug­gle, ex­perts on poverty and nu­tri­tion say.

Chil­dren often bear the brunt of un­paid meal ac­counts. A 2014 fed­eral re­port found 39% of dis­tricts na­tion­wide hand out cheap al­ter­na­tive meals with no nu­tri­tional re­quire­ments and up to 6% refuse to serve stu­dents with no money.

The de­bate over debts and child nu­tri­tion has spilled into state leg­is­la­tures and reached Capi­tol Hill, as child ad­vo­cacy groups ques­tion whether schools should be al­lowed to sin­gle out, in any way, a child whose fam­ily has not paid for meals.

New Mex­ico in April passed its anti-meal-sham­ing law, which di­rects schools to work di­rectly with par­ents to ad­dress pay­ments and re­quires that chil­dren get a healthy, balanced meal re­gard­less of whether debts are paid on time.

Texas re­cently adopted a tem­po­rary grace pe­riod for stu­dents to keep eat­ing cafe­te­ria food while debt pay­ments are ne­go­ti­ated with par­ents.

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