School dis­tricts re­think poli­cies that shame kids

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Mor­gan Lee Mor­gan Lee, The As­so­ci­ated Press

The As­socited Press

SANTA FE» 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. 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 hu­mil­i­ate chil­dren as pub­lic school dis­tricts across the United States re­think how they cope with un­paid stu­dent lunch debts.

The U.S. Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment is re­quir­ing dis­tricts to adopt poli­cies this month to ad­dress meal debts and in­form par­ents at the start of the school year. The agency is not bar­ring most of the em­bar­rass­ing tac­tics, such as serv­ing sand­wiches in place of hot meals or send­ing stu­dents home with debt re­minders, such as hand stamps. But it is en­cour­ag­ing schools to work with par­ents to ad­dress delin­quent ac­counts and en­sure chil­dren don’t go hun­gry.

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. 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.

House­holds with slightly higher in­comes 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 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.

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