In a reversal of a 2017 ban, Pennsylvania quietly reinstated a “lunch shaming” policy over the summer that allows schools to give cheaper, alternative meals to students who can’t afford food in the cafeteria.
Language within this year’s school code bill allows districts to withhold hot meals from students who accrue more than $50 in lunch debt.
“Lunch shaming exists because you got the cheese sandwich. We all know what the cheese sandwich means,” said State Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, who helped lead the 2017 effort to ban lunch shaming.
The practice typically affects students who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs but still struggle to pay for school meals.
“School districts are using tools that are not just bullying to these children but shaming families and parents that may be in a difficult situation. And oftentimes, it’s for very small amounts — a couple hundred dollars at most,” said Bullock.
So why the law change? In part, because districts are on the hook for lunch debts that in some cases have doubled since shaming was banned.
The Bethlehem Area School District says its debts in 2017-18 totaled $250,000 across its 22 schools — an increase of more than 50%.
The district has kept its ban on lunch shaming, but leaders worry some families could be taking advantage of the policy.
“It’s hard to sort out families that aren’t paying because they’re really in a tough situation — in which case, we know there’s enough stressors on families and students, and I don’t want to add to that,” said Superintendent Joseph Roy. “And then there are some that can pay that just aren’t responding. So it’s hard to sort out who’s who.”
Bethlehem, along with other Pennsylvania districts, has begun using collection agencies to get parents to pay their debts.
Roy said he will use an agency only for students with debts higher than $50 and who are not enrolled in the reduced-price federal meal program.
Quakertown School District wants to begin using a collection agency in November, pending school board approval.
Superintendent William Harner says lunch debt in the district has doubled each year since 2016-17, reaching a peak of $27,000 last year.
“It’s become outrageous … We have to plan on this coming out of our general fund each year. Student debt for lunch is going to be categorized as the same thing as a lost library book,” said Harner.
Even districts with relatively small amounts of lunch debt say they are feeling the strain. The Salisbury Township School District in Lehigh County ended the 2018 school year with $7,450 in lunch debt. Moving forward, school officials plan to work with local court officials to recoup funds.
Debates about student lunch debt have sparked a national conversation in recent years. Efforts to ban lunch shaming in Pennsylvania stemmed from the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County. There, a cafeteria employee quit after being forced to swap a student’s hot meal with a cheese sandwich.
In June, officials in the Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County warned parents that children could be placed in foster homes if lunch debts weren’t paid. They later apologized.
These sorts of reactions are troubling to child welfare advocates — especially as a recent United Way study found that roughly one in three Pennsylvania households struggle to afford life’s basic necessities.
“The cost of housing, the cost of transportation, the cost of child care and after-school care for children has risen much faster than wages,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. “So families that we think ought to be able to [afford lunch] … let’s say their [income is] at $45,000, those families are under water,” said Cooper.
To qualify for free lunch, a family’s income must be below 130% of the poverty line — $33,475 for a family of four.
Families who earn up to 185% of the poverty threshold — $47,638 a year for a family of four — can qualify for reduced-price lunch.
Some struggling families many not meet either standard. According to Feeding America, 37% of children living in food-insecure homes — defined as homes with limited or uncertain access to nutritional food — are not eligible for free and reduced-price meals.
Many Pennsylvania school districts qualify for the federal Community Eligibility Provision. CEP allows school districts to give every student a free lunch, as long as at least 40% of families qualify for a meal program.
That’s the case in Philadelphia, Reading, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Erie and Lancaster, among others.
Many districts that qualify, though, do not sign up. As of 2017, more than half of eligible districts have opted against participating in CEP.
Rep. Bullock believes part of the reason “is denial that [schools] have that kind of need in their community.”
There’s an app for that
Some parents who would qualify for free or reduced-price lunch aren’t signing up — either because they don’t know about the program or they want to avoid the stigma.
Advocates say schools should help parents overcome those hurdles with better communication.
Quakertown Superintendent Harner agrees that part of the problem is awareness.
“We spend a lot of time communicating out to our families because we know about our community and what their needs are,” he said.
Even in wealthier districts, communication is needed about lunch debt.
In the Pennsbury School District in Bucks County, leaders have asked parents to use an app that monitors debt levels in real-time.
Parent Andrea Daneker said her son is “notorious” for racking up lunch debt. Even with the pocket reminder, the debt snuck up on her.
“Unbeknownst to me, we racked up about $50, and I would get an alert on my phone saying the account was negative and how to pay it,” Daneker said.
Based on an informal Keystone Crossroads survey of parents in Facebook groups, other Pennsylvania families have felt a loss of control over how their children spend money on school meals.
“It feels like my son has taken my credit card without my permission,” said one mother.
Some parents see an upside.
“This is a real-life example that could be used in the schools to teach students how to be financially responsible,” said another mother.
Others said young children shouldn’t have to worry about calculating spending during their lunch break.
According to national school nutrition studies, the number of students going into debt for school lunch has been steadily rising since 2014.
This story was produced by our partners, Keystone Crossroads.