Lunch tray

A Manheim Central School District student waits in line to pay for her lunch in this file photo from 2013

THE ISSUE

A provision in Pennsylvania’s 2019-20 budget, which was passed and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf late last month, “allows schools to serve students alternative meals if they have an unpaid balance of $50 or more,” LNP’s Alex Geli reported July 5. State lawmakers approved this update of the school code despite banning “lunch shaming” less than two years ago. Meanwhile, a June 27 article by Geli notes the ban on lunch shaming appears to be costing local school districts more money. “At the end of the 2018-19 school year, parents still owed Lancaster County districts $118,501 on their children’s cafeteria accounts,” Geli reported.

It’s frustrating that we must revisit the issue of lunch shaming so soon after we thought it was settled in Pennsylvania.

Some background: In autumn 2016, there was national coverage of the lunch policy of Canon-McMillan School District in western Pennsylvania. Cafeteria workers there were barred from serving a hot meal to students who owed more than $25 on their accounts. Instead, those students received a sandwich with a single slice of cold cheese. Cafeteria worker Stacy Koltiska resigned in protest over the policy, telling The Washington Post, “As a Christian, I have an issue with this. It’s sinful and shameful is what it is.”

It took a year — which is quick by Harrisburg’s standards — for the state to amend its school code to ban lunch shaming. Pennsylvania forbade forcing students to do chores to pay for lunch and the stigmatization of students (for example, having those on reduced-cost programs wear wristbands).

In summer 2017, a few months prior to that legislation, we wrote: “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. ... We can all agree that every child should get through his school day with at least two things — something to eat and his dignity.”

We still hold that view.

When we wrote that, we knew it was a stance that might add a bit of financial pressure on Lancaster County school districts. Should there be limitations on how much debt is overlooked at taxpayer expense? It’s a complicated issue, for sure.

The children from the poorest households likely qualify for free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program. If their parents haven’t enrolled them in that federal program, we hope school officials are asking why. Are they too proud to apply? Is language a barrier? Is lack of responsibility on a parent’s part an issue? Even if it is, children shouldn’t suffer for the failings of their parents.

Some families don’t qualify for the free lunch program, but still struggle to make ends meet. Their kids shouldn’t be lunch-shamed, either.

No child should be.

As one LancasterOnline commenter said, succinctly: “Just feed the children. We pay taxes and it includes feeding the children.”

Geli noted that local school districts’ combined debt on students’ cafeteria accounts jumped from about $16,000 after the 2016-17 school year to about $118,000 after this past school year. And this year’s figure is incomplete, with two school districts missing from the data.

So taxpayers are indeed footing more of the bill. Is it an onerous burden? Not compared to other school costs. But things add up.

What we can’t subtract from the equation is compassion.

Others obviously agree. We applaud that, in some communities, residents have stepped up to help mitigate costs to the school district. Geli noted:

— Much of Lampeter-Strasburg’s $696 in meal debt will be covered by churches and a handful of anonymous individuals.

— Cocalico, Conestoga Valley, Donegal, Ephrata Area and Warwick have also received community donations.

— Penn Manor High School seniors with excess funds donated more than $1,900 toward the district’s cafeteria debt.

We find those efforts extremely heartening. They represent the best of who we are as Lancaster County residents.

What we don’t find heartening is the philosophy behind the revision of the state school code in Harrisburg’s newest budget. And the step backward toward lunch shaming. Allowing schools to serve alternative meals to students with an unpaid balance of $50 or more goes against the spirit of the 2017 ban.

We find it stigmatizing. And thankfully, some school officials here agree.

“It is difficult for me to believe how establishing this threshold would not be considered stigmatizing,” Hempfield Superintendent Mike Bromirski told Geli.

Bromirski added that he does not expect Hempfield to return to its old practice (prior to the 2017 law) of serving a cheese sandwich and fruit juice to students with negative balances.

Other Lancaster County school districts have served alternative meals in the past. We hope the change in the school code doesn’t open the door for those offerings to be reintroduced.

Just because it’s an option doesn’t mean school districts here are obligated to go that route. If finances are tight, there are certainly many other areas in any school budget that can be scrutinized before making decisions that undermine the dignity of students.

In response to our 2017 editorial, another LancasterOnline commenter wrote: “Thank you for bringing this to your readers’ attention. I guess this shows just how silly and sometimes mean we can be. Feed the student. Feed the student the same lunch or breakfast every one else is getting. The student is not at fault.”

Those words still ring true. Lawmakers should have heeded them.