Stu­dents caught in cross­fire over public school meal debts

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

SANTA FE, New Mex­ico:

Teach­ing as­sis­tant Kelvin Holt watched as a preschool stu­dent fell to the back of a cafe­te­ria line dur­ing break­fast in Killeen, Texas, as if try­ing to hide. “The cash regis­ter woman says to this 4-year-old girl, ver­ba­tim, ‘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 chil­dren as public school dis­tricts across the United States rethink how they cope with un­paid stu­dent lunch debts.

The US 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 email 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 and sev­eral oth­ers weigh­ing sim­i­lar laws.

Free and re­duced-price meals funded by the Agri­cul­ture De­part­ment’s Na­tional School Lunch Pro­gram shield the na­tion’s poor­est chil­dren from so-called lunch sham­ing. Kids can eat for free if a fam­ily of four earns less than about $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.

Stu­dents with no money

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

“There’s no limit to the bad be­hav­ior a school can have. They just have to put it in writ­ing,” said Jen­nifer Ramo, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of New Mex­ico Ap­ple­seed, an ad­vo­cacy group on poverty is­sues. “We live in a credit so­ci­ety. I think schools should han­dle debt like ev­ery­body else does: You don’t take away food from chil­dren. You feed them and you set­tle the bill later.”

Spurred by Ap­ple­seed and oth­ers, 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. Else­where, the Cal­i­for­nia Se­nate in May unan­i­mously ap­proved a bill that pre­vents schools from deny­ing lunch if a par­ent or guardian has not paid.

Thresa Thomas, a Los An­ge­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict food ser­vice worker for stu­dents with se­vere phys­i­cal and learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties, grinds up com­ple­men­tary cheese sand­wiches in a food pro­ces­sor to serve through feed­ing tubes to stu­dents who don’t bring lunch and whose par­ents have not paid. “They’re not able to com­plain too much,” she said. “We should give them all the same food, and we should col­lect the money as much as pos­si­ble.”

Fed­eral re­im­burse­ment rate

Texas re­cently adopted a tem­po­rary grace pe­riod for stu­dents to keep eat­ing cafe­te­ria food while debt pay­ments are ne­go­ti­ated with par­ents. At the fed­eral level, lan­guage has been pro­posed for next year’s House ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill that would set min­i­mum stan­dards to pro­tect chil­dren from public em­bar­rass­ment and leave them out of pay­ment dis­cus­sions. New Mex­ico’s Hunger-Free Stu­dents’ Bill of Rights Act was ush­ered through the State­house by Demo­cratic Sen. Michael Padilla, who was raised in foster homes and vividly re­calls hav­ing to sweep and mop the lunch­room to earn meals at an Al­bu­querque public school.

“It’s shouldn’t be that way,” Padilla said. “This should not have to be a thought for a child.” Fed­eral cash sub­si­dies feed two out of three stu­dents statewide - yet meals still go un­paid, school ad­min­is­tra­tors say. “The piece that is re­ally dif­fer­ent in this leg­is­la­tion is that you can­not turn a child away no mat­ter what they owe,” said Nancy Cathey, who over­sees food ser­vices at Las Cruces Public Schools. That pro­vi­sion is likely to drive up the dis­trict’s un­paid meal ac­counts, which re­cently to­taled $8,000, she said. The dis­trict pre­vi­ously de­clined to serve high school stu­dents who can­not pay and ex­tended a $25 credit to mid­dle-school­ers. Most dis­tricts aim to keep meal costs close to $3.20, the typ­i­cal fed­eral re­im­burse­ment rate for free lunches. The Al­bu­querque dis­trict is still weigh­ing whether it can af­ford to serve the same hot meal to all stu­dents and do away with an al­ter­na­tive cold meal that has been nick­named de­ri­sively the “cheese sand­wich of shame.” —AP

SANTA FE, New Mex­ico: Photo shows third grader El­liana Vigil punches in his stu­dent identification meal to pay for a meal at Gon­za­les Com­mu­nity School in Santa Fe. —AP photos

SANTA FE, New Mex­ico: Photo shows third grade stu­dent Lu­cas Jame­son taps in his stu­dent identification num­ber to deduct a meal pay­ment at Gon­za­les Com­mu­nity School in Santa Fe.

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