School districts rethink policies that shame kids
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.