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Editorial: Kudos to Amherst-Pelham for ending ‘lunch shaming’

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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Kudos to the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District for its leadership in eliminating the indefensible practice known as “lunch shaming.”

Across the country, students with a school meal debt have been publicly shamed with alternate food — often a cold sandwich — made to perform chores, or branded with a message like “I Need Lunch Money” stamped on their arm. The issue this year gained attention — including a report in The New York Times — after New Mexico became the first state to ban such practices and a federal Anti-Lunch Shaming Act was introduced in Congress.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees school breakfast and lunch programs, set a July 1 deadline for all participating school districts to have a written policy governing treatment of students who don’t have money to buy meals. The USDA encourages ending the singling out of those children.

The most egregious shaming practices were not used in the Amherst-Pelham schools. In fact, a policy approved in 2015 by the Amherst Regional School Committee calling for students who owed money to receive a “designated meal alternate” — such as a “cheese sandwich with fruit and vegetable” — was never carried out.

“The previous policy had some punitive elements, such as limiting students with overdue balances to a meal alternate,” said Sean Mangano, director of finances for the regional schools. “After getting feedback from parents, School Committee members, and the school equity task force, we made some revisions.”

The new policy, approved June 13, states, “All students will receive a regular lunch each and every day regardless of overdue balances.” It also specifies guidelines for efforts to collect debts from parents, rather than subjecting their children to humiliating punishments.

The reaction was positive.  “People are delighted and so happy and so thankful that we have a more humane policy that takes into consideration family circumstances,” said School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage. “This new policy is consistent with our commitment for equity and to do what’s right.”

It also mirrors the New Mexico law adopted in April that directs schools to no longer “publicly identify or stigmatize a student who cannot pay for a meal or who owes a meal debt by, for example, requiring that a student wear a wristband or hand stamp; or require a student who cannot pay for a meal or who owes a meal debt to do chores or other work to pay for meals.”

The Department of Agriculture reported in 2014 that nearly half of all school districts in the country used some shaming of students in an effort to get parents to pay their debt, with the most common technique a cold sandwich instead of a hot meal. In some school cafeterias, children had their hot meals thrown in the trash when workers discovered they had an unpaid meal debt.

The USDA reports that school lunches are served to 30.4 million students every day. Each school district sets the price of meals, so they vary across the country. The cost averaged $2.34 in elementary schools, $2.54 in middle schools and $2.60 in high schools during the 2015-16 school year, according to data collected by the School Nutrition Association.

Boston is among the cities which qualifies under the federal Community Eligibility Provision to offer free meals to all students, regardless of individual need, because the school district is in a high-poverty area.

More common is participation in the National School Lunch Program which provides free or reduced-price meals to children whose families meet certain income guidelines. The USDA reimburses schools for those lunches, which make up about 22 million — or  about 73 percent — of the total served.

However, some eligible families either don't know about the free and reduced-price meals, or don’t bother to register so the school receives the federal reimbursement. As school districts work with families who have meal debts, they should distribute information instructing parents how to get certified for that federally aided program.

Meal debt totals about $50,000 in the Amherst-Pelham district. Under the policy approved this month, parents with low or negative meal balances receive monthly emails, with notices mailed to their homes three times a year. School officials also may reduce or waive a family’s debt based on individual circumstances. The policy calls for parents to make arrangements before each school year ends to “fully or partially pay, or waive, outstanding balances.”

We hope that other school districts follow the commendable example set by the Amherst Regional School Committee in adopting a more humane policy that stops targeting innocent children in the effort to collect meal debts.