My Turn: Unpaid meal charges and the shaming of students

The following op-ed appeared in the Concord Monitor on September 3, 2019

Unpaid school meal charges are not a new problem. For years, food service staff helped students who forgot their lunch money. Sometimes it was the teacher who stepped in or another staff member. This has been going on for years. I can attest that as a first-grade student in West Virginia, I forgot my lunch money and the school refused to serve me lunch. I cried, and my older sister was called to the principal’s office to calm me down. Problem solved, sister to the rescue. However, I never forgot the feeling of embarrassment. That meal cost 25 cents.

Meal charging occurs because students do not have funds in their account. This happens for many reasons. However, the end result of meal charging is that administrations discover charging contributes to the school’s unallowable debt dilemma. Students are on the receiving end of frustrated staff, and staff are not always sure what to do. Often meals do not qualify for federal or state reimbursements (failed alternative meal). These unintended consequences have not been good for any party.

The upsetting part is that schools are finding more students are hungry with no funds, and food service is often confused about what they should do when a student is staring at them. Occasionally, a student may be the recipient of inappropriate responses to the lack of funds. And this target is misplaced. Students are not the solvers of this problem. When corrective steps are not in place, the loss of funds is a double whammy. And the vulnerable student loses.

Rarely are regulations easy to understand or execute. And in this case, accepting the charging of meals with poor procedures or giving alternative unqualified meals are not solutions to the issue. There is no financial or social reason to serve an unqualified meal, when the object is to feed the student and receive the most funds for that meal. It must only be the reimbursable meal. This is not a conversation about a la carte choices.

By federal law, charges to school food service accounts may not be recovered from USDA federal funds. Without a policy the school loses the charged funds, and reimbursable funds if an unqualified meal is served, or may find they are discriminating against a group of students by offering only an alternate meal. There are solutions.

Start with this premise: Food service policies come from collaborative local work. Currently, schools receive training from numerous sources, including the New Hampshire Department of Education, the leading regulatory authority for USDA meal programs. An important aspect of any policy is the inclusion of state statute RSA 189:11a III, which states all students must have access to a healthy school lunch, that parents will be informed of the policy, and that no student will be subjected to different treatment from the standard school meal or by any school procedures.

Following this state law should relieve schools of issues of shaming and discrimination. Thanks to former state senator Molly Kelly for sponsoring and former governor Maggie Hassan for signing.

The question remains: How do schools solve the existing debt and future debt? With the development of local solutions. A financial policy should be drafted by local school stakeholders, such as food service, business offices and the community. The group will develop a debt policy that includes setting charging limits with procedures for covering costs; closely monitor student and food service balances; and inform parents in a meaningful way. It will identify school supporters who might set up funds to assist with balances. These proactive steps will help manage the charges that may occur.

There are great best practices in New Hampshire among organizations and individuals, such as nonprofits and PTAs, that are applying their fundraising skills to the task. Some schools have added a line item to the district budget, and there are student-run organizations whose mission is to raise money to support meal charges. Some groups have a debit card system for students.

Solutions must be reviewed to ensure they are working. There is no gold card standard in any of these solutions. But they all represent the voice of the school community. When people are a part of the solution, the outcomes are more often great solutions.

Schools will also improve their food service accounting by quickly implementing Senate Bill 82, the breakfast bill signed by Gov. Chris Sununu. Each student who has reduced-priced meal eligibility will receive breakfast for free. Parents will not have to decide between paying for lunch or breakfast. All of us in the hunger arena are grateful for this legislation.

(Elaine VanDyke is the board chairman of NH Hunger Solutions.)