"Lunch shaming" ban puts North Thurston Schools $21,000 in debt

A bill aimed at stopping school lunch shaming is now putting districts across the state thousands of dollars in debt.

North Thurston Public Schools said its lunch debt hit $21,000 last week. The district started the school year $4,500 in debt.

“At the rate we’re going, we’re not even halfway through the school year and we’ve already increased our debt by nearly $16,000, so, yeah, I don’t see it getting better at this point,” said Alicia Neal, North Thurston Public Schools director of food nutrition.

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Neal is worried the costs are going to continue to climb.

Every school day, North Thurston officials serve about 10,000 meals. This year, fewer families are footing the bill up front because of Washington’s new Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act.

“It prevents any one student from getting recognized or pointed out because they don’t have funds in their account,” said Neal.

This year, kids are guaranteed hot meals, regardless of whether or not they bring in money. In the past, once kids went three meals into debt, they were given a cheese sandwich, cereal or food from the salad bar until their parents reimbursed their account.

School officials said the bill has good intentions, but it’s putting districts in a bind.

“We have a lot of kids in our school whose families don’t have enough to feed them enough food or any food at all and without breakfast or lunch our kids can come to school not ready to learn,” said Principal Heather McCarthy at Mountain View Elementary School.

In North Thurston, 38 percent, or about 5,700 students, use the free and reduced priced lunch program, which is covered by state funds.

“I’m a single mom with five kids and it’s just been a godsend,” said Angela Dresbach.

However, House Bill 2610 is different. It didn’t come with funding and many students racking up debt aren’t enrolled in the free and reduced priced lunch program, which means parents need to pay the district back. The problem is, many aren’t.

Neal said they have been calling, emailing and sending families letters to let them know lunch money is past due.

She is on a committee working with the state representative who sponsored the bill to try to come up with a solution. She said something has to change, otherwise lunch costs will start affecting the classroom.

“The intent is very good, but we have to ensure there’s a way school districts aren’t going into debt to cover lunches,” said Neal.

North Thurston Public Schools said parents who have children who qualify for free and reduced priced lunches need to make sure they fill out an application for the 2018-2019 school year. Some kids who are eligible, but aren’t enrolled, are adding to school costs the state would otherwise cover.

To help address the issue of lunch debt, last year the school district created a Compassion Lunch Fund to help pay families in need pay for lunches. Donations are accepted through the school district’s website.