There are few things as bad as a hungry child.
Hunched over an aching stomach as the school day creeps toward its end, one in six children go hungry in America today.
It’s harder to learn when you’re malnourished and in pain – especially for children.
Yet for many policymakers, nothing is as bad as feeding children and letting their parents avoid the bill.
About 75% of US school districts report students who end the year owing large sums for lunches, according to the School Nutrition Association. And of those districts, 40.2% said the number of students without adequate funds increased last school year.
In fact, that has become the central issue – not child hunger but lunch debt.
Policymakers at the federal, state and school district level are finding new ways to force impoverished parents to pay for their children’s meals even if doing so means penalizing the children.
Just yesterday the Trump administration announced a plan to tighten eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that could result in hundreds of thousands of the poorest children losing automatic eligibility for free school lunches.
In my home state of Pennsylvania, a district made headlines by threatening to send kids to foster care if their parents didn’t pay up.
The state legislature even voted in June to reinstate lunch shaming – the practice of denying lunch or providing low-cost meals to students with unpaid lunch bills.
That is how America treats its children.
Progressive Approaches and Challenges
Throughout the country, students whose families meet federal income guidelines can receive free or discounted lunches. However, many families don’t know how to apply to the program or that they can do so at any point in the school year. Moreover, districts can minimize debt if they help families enroll.
Unfortunately, too many school administrators are opting on coercion and threats instead of help.
In the poorest districts, a federal program called community eligibility has been providing relief.
When 40 percent of children in a district or school qualify for free or reduced meals, the federal government steps in to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students in the district or school regardless of parental income.
It’s an enormously successful program that avoids the pitfalls of penalizing or shaming students for their economic circumstances.
But it’s exactly what’s come under fire by the Trump administration.
The Department of Agriculture’s new proposed limits on which students should qualify for free meals could change the status of 265,000 children. This would cause a chain reaction at many districts making them unqualified for community eligibility.
It would literally take away free meals from whole neighborhoods of youngsters.
This measure is exactly the opposite of what’s being proposed by the most progressive Democratic challenger to Trump – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Instead of reducing the numbers of children who can get free meals, Sanders wants to increase the numbers to include everyone.
As part of his Thurgood Marshall Plan, the lawmaker seeking the Democratic nomination for President promises to enact a federal program to feed all students year-round.
This means free breakfast, lunch and even snacks. The program would be open to every child, regardless of parental wealth.
No one would be shamed because they are the only ones eligible for these free meals, and we wouldn’t be stuck wondering why needy kids have difficulty learning on an empty stomach.
Providing school meals, even at cost, is a losing proposition. The price of unpaid lunches and the cost to complete mountains of paperwork involved in collecting the money is put on the backs of local taxpayers.
Sanders is offering a truly humane approach to the problem that would eliminate administrative threats and even bolster district budgets.
This is how good government responds to the needs of its citizens – not by terrifying and degrading parents and children due to economic hardships.
And it flies in the face of nearly every other measure offered to deal with the problem.
One of the worst offenders is Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania.
Though one of the poorest in the state as measured by per-pupil spending, administrators sent letters to dozens of families demanding they pay their children’s school lunch debt or their kids could be taken away on the basis of neglect.
The former coal mining community fed poor children but felt bad about it. School administrators were so incensed that these kids parents didn’t pay, they resorted to fear and intimidation to get the money owed.
Children can’t control whether their parents can pay their bills. But that didn’t stop administrators from taking out their disdain for impoverished parents on these youngsters.
In the Valley district, parents had run up approximately $22,000 in breakfast and lunch debt. This is a fraction of the school district’s $80 million annual budget and could have been reduced had administrators concentrated on helping parents navigate the system.
Instead they simply demanded parents pay – or else.
After sending mailers, robocalls, personal calls and letters to families, administrators took more drastic measures.
About 40 families whose children owed $10 or more were sent a letter signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the district, which said:
“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”
When the story hit the national media, experts from across the country weighed in that this was a bogus claim. Parents cannot have their children taken away because they can’t pay for school lunches.
And district officials have apologized and vowed not to make these kinds of threats in the future.
Perhaps the best news is that the district’s increasing poverty has qualified it to take part in community eligibility in the Fall.
All students would get free meals regardless of their parents income – unless, of course, the Trump administration’s new SNAP eligibility goes into place.
In that case, the district could continue to twist parents arms in a futile attempt to get blood from a stone.
But don’t look for help from Harrisburg.
In June the state legislature voted on annual revisions to its school code which brought back lunch shaming.
Now districts that aren’t poor enough for community eligibility will be able to deny lunches to students who can’t pay or provide them a lower quality meal until parents settle any lunch debts.
It’s a surprising about-face from a legislature who only two years ago voted to end this policy. Now lawmakers are going back to it.
Republicans are claiming this is a solution to districts racking up thousands of dollars in lunch debt. Democrats are claiming ignorance.
Many state representatives and state senators are saying they didn’t read the full bill before voting on it.
Lawmakers are actually saying they were surprised that lunch shaming was back. Yet it was many of these same lawmakers who voted for the omnibus bill that reinstates it.
The only difference between the old lunch shaming bill and the new one is the threshold for inclusion. The old measure allowed schools to provide “alternative meals” to children with $25 or more in unpaid lunch bills. The new measure inserted into the school code allows alternative meals for students who owe $50 or more. Students could be fed these lower quality meals until the balance is paid or until their parents agree to a repayment plan.
The Shame of a Nation
Stories about student lunch debt have been all over the news.
Yogurt company Chobani paid off a large chunk of a Rhode Island districts $77,000 lunch debt in May after administrators threatened to feed kids sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwiches until their debt was paid.
The same month a New Hampshire lunchroom employee was fired for letting a student take food without paying. The employee said the student owed $8 and she was confident the child would eventually pay her back.
Will America continue to prioritize late-stage capitalism over ethical treatment of children?
Or will we rise up to the level of our ideals?
That has been the challenge for this country since its founding.
And the answer is far from assured.
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