By Oliver Lazenby
In some school districts, if a student doesn’t have lunch, they don’t eat. In others, they get a cheese sandwich to eat in front of their classmates who are toting trays of corndogs, baked
beans, fruit and vegetables.
For the most part, that’s not the case at Blaine schools. The district’s guidelines for dealing with unpaid lunch debt state, “No child will be turned away on the basis of a zero or negative balance account.”
Those guidelines aren’t new, but they’re in writing for the first time in response to new U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that require school districts to communicate, in writing, what they’ll do when students can’t pay for lunch.
The new federal rules are aimed at ending “lunch shaming,” a term for a variety of practices that single students out for not being able to pay for lunch, including anything from stamping kids’ hands as a reminder to bring money, to denying them a lunch tray.
Blaine’s guidelines say students won’t get turned away at the lunch counter, even if they already have a negative balance on their account. Instead, they’ll either get a regular meal and some more debt tagged onto their negative balance, or they’ll get a substitute meal at no cost.
The substitute could be a sandwich instead of an entrée, and the same fruits, vegetables and milk in the standard meal. Also, students with a negative balance on their account can pay with cash and receive the standard meal.
“No one can be denied a meal. That is the main driver behind our new guidelines,” said district finance director Amber Porter. “Students have limited ability to control their ability to pay for meals so meal shaming seems cruel.”
The district currently has $4,436 in unpaid lunch debt. That’s less than 1 percent of its total expenses for food services last year, which totaled $805,000.
“It is also ordinary and expected, so it has been a part of the budget for many years,” Porter said.
The district doesn’t try to make money with its food services. Lunch costs $2.75, breakfast costs $1.50 and the goal is to operate with no profit, Porter said.
To avoid lunch shaming, the district focuses its debt collection efforts on parents.
Those efforts may include phone calls, emails, letters and notices sent home, but they don’t use collection agencies.
In many cases a simple reminder is all it takes, Porter said. Kids from families with serious financial needs are often on a free or reduced lunch plan – about 46 percent of Blaine students are. Kids can eat for free if a family of four earns less than $32,000 or at a discount for under $45,000.
“I would rather students focus on the lessons of the day or interact with friends than worry about their financial shortcomings,” Porter said. “Laurie Pike [district food service administrator] always says that everyone should have an A+ at lunch.”