New law ensures no student will be ‘lunch shamed.' Now, meal debts are mounting

A hot lunch with fresh fruit and vegetables is served at Whitman Elementary School in Tacoma, November 16, 2018. Photo: Peter Haley/The News Tribune

Starting this year, students around the state can no longer be denied meals, regardless of their ability to pay.

A new law passed by state legislature earlier this year prohibits what’s commonly referred to as “lunch shaming,” or holding children accountable for unpaid school meals.

But the new law comes with a price, and school districts are paying it.

“Previously students were only allowed to charge so many meals before the account needed to be paid. Now that restriction has been removed, which is great, but we are incurring more debt than we were before,” Bethel School District spokesman Doug Boyles said in an email.

Bethel School District, which typically has from $2,000 to $3,000 in school debt at the end of every year already has accrued $21,000 this year.

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It’s not alone.

Tacoma Public Schools is facing more than $77,000 in meal debt charges. About $24,000 is carryover from last year, with $50,000 accumulated for this school, and it’s only November.

Federal Way Public Schools’ current meal balance is approximately $30,000.

“If this continues to grow at the same rate, we could accumulate up to $118,000 in unpaid meals, which is a significant increase from previous school years,” Federal Way district spokeswoman Whitney Chiang said.

District officials are searching for ways to accommodate the growing debt.

“That is what is under discussion and is the hardest piece to solve,” Boyle said.

New rules for staff
Washington is one of 27 states that introduced a Hungry-Free Students' Bill of Rights after New Mexico first did so in 2017.

The bill, also called ESHB 2610, was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in March and became effective in June. Sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, and a string of other legislators, the bill addresses how districts and personnel react to students’ inability to pay for meals.

“School personnel, school district personnel, and volunteers are prohibited from taking any action that would publicly identify a student who cannot pay for a school meal or for meals previously served to the student, including requiring the student to wear an identifying marker or serving the student an alternative meal,” the law states.

The law also eliminates caps on any negative meal balances and requires district staff to:

▪ Direct communications about amounts owed to the student’s parent or guardian if the student is under the age of 15.

▪ Notify parents of a negative balance on the student’s school meal account within 10 days of earning the charge.

▪ Take specified actions if students have not paid for more than five meals, such as determining if they would qualify for free and reduced lunches.

For some staff members, the change is a relief.

Bonnie Bell, a kitchen manager at Whitman Elementary School in Tacoma, would sometimes have to tell students to set aside their hot tray lunches for smaller, cheaper ones because they had unpaid lunch bills.

“It broke my heart,” Bell said.

For Bell and coworker Wendy Lee, a weight has been lifted.

“I’m just glad no kid goes hungry,” Lee said. “I love seeing the smiles on their faces every day.”

The fiscal impact
On Friday, students of Whitman Elementary followed their normal lunchroom procedure, grabbing food and giving cards preloaded with money to Lee, who was operating the cash register.

Full meals cost $2.75 for Tacoma elementary and middle grade students and $3.00 for high school students.

Sometimes, those lunch cards wouldn’t have enough money to cover the meal. Before the bill was enacted, elementary and middle school students with a negative balance of $10 were told to set their tray aside and given an emergency meal consisting of a sandwich and milk. That’s no longer the case.

“Starting this year, school cafeterias will not deny any student a USDA-approved meal because of a family’s inability to pay,” the Tacoma district announced on its website earlier this month.

If a student’s meal card shows a negative balance, the charge is recorded, but students can carry on with their meals with no interruptions.

The arrival of an unexpected bill can upset parents, Tacoma Public Schools spokeswoman Alicia Lawver said.

At the high school level, there used to be no caps at all — meaning if students didn’t have money to pay, they wouldn’t get a meal. Now, high schools are seeing the highest increase in meal debt as students have started eating but not necessarily paying.

Some legislators foresaw this, citing in a bill report that districts would see a spike in meal debt because “students who do not currently eat school meals due to finances, and do not have charges, may start eating. In addition, parents who struggle to pay, but still pay, for school meals may decide not to pay.”

Parents still have to pay for the meals their children receive. A student’s debt follows them until graduation, where it has to be cleared — and it can’t be paid for by the district with federal nutrition funds.

If parents don’t pay, the district can pursue collections of those fees, but most would rather not take the action.

“While we absolutely support the intent of this bill, and we expect many families will eventually pay their meal debts, one hurdle that we and other districts have is that families must apply annually for the Free & Reduced Price meal program each year,” Lawver said. “There is a grace period at the beginning of the year, and that grace period recently ended. This has caused the debt levels to increase at even faster rates the past couple weeks.”

It’s likely that many families accruing negative balances apply for free and/or reduced lunches, which school districts are reimbursed for. Families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals, while families between 130 and 185 percent of poverty are eligible for the reduced price meals program, according to the National School Lunch Program.

A search for solutions
Increasing meal debt isn't just a state trend — it's a national trend, according to the School Nutrition Association.

About 75 percent of districts across the nation reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year, while 40.2 percent report that the number of students without adequate funds increased last school year, according to a 2018 School Nutrition Operations Report.

“We have seen meal debt increasing nationally in recent years as more students arrive in the cafeteria will insufficient funds,” SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said.

Local districts are now turning to legislators to address their growing meal debts.

“Our Child Nutrition staff is currently working with Rep. Strom Peterson on this and other issues,” Boyles said.

Parents can manually set their own caps, which district officials say would help prevent increasing debt. They can sign up to notify themselves if their student is close to running out of money on his or her lunch card.

The Puyallup School District is working to implement a “Parent Portal” payment model this month that officials say could help with controlling meal debt. The model requests input from parents on what the district should do if their student forgets lunch at home or otherwise cannot pay for a meal.

“It’s very transparent and it puts (parents) in control and in the driver’s seat,” Bender said. “It protects students from getting the wrong thing.”

Bender added that further insight into revision of the bill would be beneficial, because the current policy — while well-intended —doesn’t consider diverse needs of students, such as allergies or religious dietary restrictions.

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