For children whose families struggle to pay off school lunch debt, the pangs of hunger are made more severe by the stigma of social shaming — performing lunch chores, watching perfectly good food be thrown into the trash and receiving stamps on the arm that read “I owe money.”
Based only on schools that have provided the information, there is at least $584,000 of meal debt in Washington, according to figures collected by Real Change. According to Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), 44 percent of students — 477,828 kids — received free or reduced lunch for the 2015-16 school year.
But 76 percent of school districts in the United States have children with outstanding meal balances, according to a 2016 survey from the School Nutrition Association. A 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report found that 39 percent of school districts serve alternative meals that lack any kind of nutritional requirement, and
6 percent refuse to serve children that owe money.
Lunch debt occurs when student accounts run out of money. At the end of the school year, districts turn to parents to collect the money owed for the meals already served.
After reading online about the trials of meal debt and the shaming that sometimes accompanies it, Jeffrey Lew became determined to erase meal debt across Seattle’s schools.
“As a father of three, having a 9-year-old going into the fourth grade, it really made me angry,” Lew said. “If my child was being lunch-shamed, I would be one angry parent.”
After a bit of investigation, Lew was happy to discover that lunch-shaming does not take place in Seattle Public Schools, but there was still the issue of nearly $21,000 in lunch debt at the end of the school year in 2017. Inspired by similar campaigns across the country, Lew started a GoFundMe account to erase Seattle’s debt.
Boosted by national attention and a $5,000 donation from musician John Legend, the campaign was a massive success, reaching its $21,000 goal before even a week had passed. The campaign would go on to raise more than $50,000.
With Seattle’s school lunch debt obliterated, Lew turned to several other districts in the state. With momentum on his side, Lew was able to erase the debt for the Spokane and Tacoma Public Schools, the second- and third-largest districts in Washington, respectively.
“It is very hard, especially in the elementary level, if you have a young student who comes through the line and doesn’t have any money and is very hungry,” Donna Parsons said. “It tugs at your heart.”
Lew said clear communications are necessary to prevent rampant meal debt. Schools need to keep parents in the loop, as opposed to the responsibility falling on the child.
Lew cited Spokane Public Schools as a strong example. Despite such a massive population of students, the debt in Spokane was only $1,500 in the 2016-17 school year, and the district acknowledged the effort it puts into communicating with parents.
This emphasis on communications was echoed by others. Lisa Johnson, director of nutrition services at Highline Public Schools, said that clarity is important, as is having easy access to payment options, with online payments proving very effective.
“All of us get busy as parents, and it’s nice to have that communication if student meal accounts get low,” Johnson said. “From my experience, parents who start using [the internet] as an option continue to use that as an option because it’s the most convenient.”
With a high number of children on free or reduced meals, the Highline district is not as vulnerable to lunch debt as other districts in the state. Still, Johnson said the district has gotten creative with tackling the issue.
Highline Public Schools allows parents to donate to the district’s school foundation, which keeps lunch debt donations tax-free. Johnson said paying off outstanding account balances can be difficult because federal education funding cannot be used and districts must rely on USDA funding.
OSPI works directly with the USDA and offers guidance to districts, but policy is made at a district level. Donna Parsons, director of nutrition services for OSPI, said that charge policies are generally more lenient in elementary schools than they are when kids grow older.
“It is very hard, especially in the elementary level, if you have a young student who comes through the line and doesn’t have any money and is very hungry,” she said. “It tugs at your heart.”
Meal debt has come closer to the spotlight in 2017, with eight states putting forth bills to address unpaid meal charges. In April, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which outlaws lunch-shaming in the state, and is the first bill of its kind to become law.
Another potential solution comes from the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools and districts in low-income areas to serve meals at no cost to enrolled students, provided schools meet the requirements. The CEP program reimburses schools based on a formula that takes into account student demographics and participation in programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Still, finding a long-term solution for meal debt has become something of a Holy Grail quest for those passionate about ending hunger. Even after such a successful series of campaigns, Lew said he understood that unpaid charges will continue to plague students across the country.
“My mission’s not done until we actually find a permanent solution,” he said. “I don’t expect it to be solved overnight or within the year.”
Lew wants a solution for Seattle that can be applied on a state level and, eventually, a national level. Earlier in the year, Lew reached out to Seattle’s six primary mayoral candidates via Twitter, with each agreeing to meet with him to discuss school lunch debt should they win the election.
Partnering with fellow local parent Stephen Medawar, Lew on Aug. 25 launched a new GoFundMe campaign to erase meal debt across the state of Washington, with a $650,000 target. The new campaign kicked off with a benefit concert at the Hollywood Schoolhouse in Woodinville.
Lew said there could be a child in the United States destined to cure cancer or become president, and that child could be experiencing hunger and lunch-shaming in an American school district at this very moment.
“These are children, their job is to study and focus in school,” he said. “You can’t focus in school without eating meals.”
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