school lunches

THE ISSUE

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has urged public school officials across the country to “communicate discreetly” and keep low or negative account balances confidential by not notifying children about their meal debt in front of other students. Public schools in the U.S. are rewriting their policies on how to feed hungry students who can’t pay for meals. At the same time, they are being warned by the federal government against humiliating or embarrassing children. As the Sunday LNP reported, some Lancaster County school districts have enacted strict policies to cut down student meal debt.

Whatever the reason a student can’t afford to pay for lunch, we can all agree that the child shouldn’t be singled out or publicly humiliated for it.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey has co-sponsored a bill designed to halt the practice of “lunch shaming.”

Democratic state Rep. Mike Sturla of Lancaster is co-sponsor of a bill that would prohibit schools from denying students hot meals, requiring a student to wear a wristband or hand stamp, and forcing kids to work for food.

Kids can be cruel to one another. So, it seems fairly obvious that forcing a child to wear a scarlet letter in the form of a wristband or to toil on some sort of junior chain gang to work off his lunch debt isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

This should be the easy part.

More complicated is why students can’t pay and what school districts should do about it.

Judging by some of our readers, there are disparate opinions on the topic.

“Perhaps it is time for the parents/parent to step up to the plate and raise and support their children. Priorities seem to be way out of focus where iPhones, tattoos, big screen TVs become the focus of the parents rather than the welfare of the child,” Bruce Deisinger posted on LancasterOnline.

In the same comments section, Nancy Coble, of Lancaster, wrote, “Allowing all kids to eat is probably the only thing I don’t have a problem with when it comes to seeing my taxes steadily increase.”

As LNP staff writer Alex Geli reported Sunday, Lancaster County’s public schools have a variety of policies to deal with students who have negative meal account balances. These are the kids caught in the middle, those who either don’t qualify or aren’t registered for the free and reduced lunch program. (In some cases, a child might qualify but hasn’t been signed up by his parents.)

Some school districts limit the number of times students who are behind on payments can get a free lunch, while others place no limits on the number of meals they will serve to children with negative balances.

Some districts offer alternate meals. Five — Manheim Central, Manheim Township, Octorara Area, Penn Manor and Warwick — place no limits on alternate meals nor do they have a cutoff point for free meals.

If the students can’t pay, who does? The taxpayers, eventually.

As Geli reported, this past school year students at Lancaster County’s 17 school districts accrued $16,000 in debt on school lunches, money that is mostly covered out of the districts’ general funds.

“It puts us in a difficult position when we’re supporting our food services program in part from taxpayer funds,” Ephrata Area School District Superintendent Brian Troop told LNP.

Ephrata and other school districts have had to get creative in how they deal with students with negative or low account balances.

Ephrata reduced its cafeteria debt from $10,000 in 2016 to $3,811 this past year by enacting a new policy designed to improve communication with parents and students about low account balances.

At Hempfield Area School District, elementary school students are able to charge three meals on overdue accounts, while older students are allowed one. Students of all ages then receive a cheese sandwich and a fruit juice cup until their debt is paid.

This is a predicament for school districts. Do they simply overlook the debt at taxpayer expense or do they extend grace with limits?

We appreciate the districts that have tried to answer those questions so that no child will go hungry. There is no perfect solution.

It is clear that better communication with parents and guardians is necessary. Schools need to find out why a child doesn’t have the money to pay for a meal. The Ephrata example suggests that understanding and dialogue can make a significant difference. And parents whose children do qualify for the free and reduced lunch program need to sign up their children.

The potential reasons and family dynamics that could lead to a child not having enough money for meals might be very complicated. It will remain the school districts’ responsibility to unravel those issues and find a solution.

But we can all agree that every child should get through his school day with at least two things — something to eat and his dignity.