Several stories about school districts grappling with unpaid lunch balances have come through my news feed over the past few weeks. There was one about a six-year-old who was made to return her tray of hot food and get back in line for peanut butter and jelly and a couple of different stories out of Rhode Island. In Warwick, RI, a district was facing public outcry over its practice of providing “sun butter and jelly” sandwiches to students with unpaid balances. The policy was set to affect about 9,000 students before Chobani stepped in to clear the debt. Down the road in Cranston, RI, the school district has begun referring debts to a collection agency in order to recover about $45,000 in unpaid balances. These districts are not isolated cases. School districts all over the country are faced with the problem of food service debt. According to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), in 2014 about 60% of school districts across the country were resorting to “cold lunch” only tactics in response to unpaid balances. Some districts continue serving students hot lunch but make students with debt ineligible for school activities like homecoming and field trips.
Newfoodeconomy.org reports that debt is ballooning and says, “it's evidence of a broken school lunch system that uses students’ needs as collateral to leverage money from parents.” For their part, districts feel they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They must follow federal regulations around school lunch and the money to pay the debts has to come from somewhere. If not from families, then from other line items in the budget. As I read all of these stories and tried to get a sense of the magnitude of the problem, I found myself wishing the United States would provide free lunch to all students as they do in Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and India. Until we do, schools are left with lousy options. The issue arose in my own district several years ago when I was serving on the school board. As I remember the discussion, a decision was made not to penalize elementary students with lunch debt, and students at the high school would be allowed hot lunch but not allowed to purchase items off the “a la carte” menu. A Take a Student to Lunch fundraising effort was begun where community members and families could donate specifically to the unpaid balance fund. Finally, the district redoubled efforts to get families to fill out paperwork for free or reduced meals. All things considered, those actions seemed reasonable. But clearly, there are limitations to those strategies as unpaid lunch debt grows. Fundraising itself is time-consuming and expensive and Chobani can’t be waiting in the wings of every community, ready to save the day. (I have to admit, I’ve been veering toward Chobani in the yogurt aisle since reading the story, and I also find myself thinking that if Chobani can contribute, maybe some of the behemoth companies in our country – like ones that rhyme with Pamazon, Moogle or Balmart, for instance – could pay a bit more in federal taxes so that we could provide more fulsome support to schools. But that’s another story.) Still, it’s in challenging moments that having clarity of your deep underlying beliefs can help. We recently released our report Radically Reimaged Relationships: The Foundation of Engagement, and in it we assert the primacy of relationships in every aspect of school life. If we think about the unpaid balances dilemma with an eye towards relationships, certain responses become untenable. In nearly all of the stories I’ve seen, students (as well as their parents and guardians) describe the alternate lunch practices as humiliating. Having a peanut butter or sunflower butter sandwich feels to many students like a sign around their neck that says they’re too poor to pay. If we want students to feel like school is a safe place where they have deep connections to people that care about them, then lunch-shaming can’t be a thing. Similarly, schools might need to think hard about other policies that leave no leeway for treating students as human beings with complex lives. When relationships are genuinely thought to be primary and are used as a guidepost, policies like “silent lunch” are no longer viable.
To read more about the lunch debt issue, check out this thorough explanation of the situation from Newfoodeconomy.org: https://newfoodeconomy.org/school-lunch-debt-usda/. And if your district has found a way to manage this problem without shaming students and damaging relationships with students and families, we’d love to hear about it.