Imagine you are a young student living in poverty somewhere in Maryland. You may qualify for a reduced price meal at school but you don’t have the co-pay that can run as high as 30 cents for breakfast or 40 cents for lunch. Maybe you haven’t had the money for weeks. The result? It often means not only incurring debt but humiliation as you are served an “alternative” meal (such as a cold cheese sandwich) or perhaps have your hand stamped or you are given a wrist band to indicate non-payment. This kind of stigmatization at a vulnerable age is enough to deter a youngster from seeking a meal at all — and that’s the crux of the problem.
This has been an area of national concern for years (three out of four schools report unpaid meal balances of some kind, according to the School Nutrition Association) but it’s a problem in Maryland, too. The latest survey from Maryland Hunger Solutions found a number following questionable practices with meal debt. They not only included serving low-cost alternative meals but at least three school districts punished students with meal debt by restricting their participation in extracurricular activities or barring access to student records or report cards.
And while we can appreciate that some school districts face financial challenges, surely matters of student meal debt can be worked out between administrators and guardians directly without involving students. Or better yet, more schools serving high numbers of low-income families can opt to serve free meals to all students preventing the possibility of stigma entirely. Many school districts were found to not follow best practices related to a 2010 federal law that requires schools to better communicate school lunch policies. About half of the 21 districts surveyed in Maryland did not distribute copies of their policy annually to households, for example. (The three school districts not surveyed, Baltimore and the Eastern Shore counties of Somerset and Dorchester were not surveyed because they already provide free lunches to all students).
Last year, the Maryland General Assembly approved and Gov. Larry Hogan signed into a law a measure that eventually makes the state ultimately responsible for the student’s share of a reduced price meal but the measure does not go into full effect for several more years. That should have been sufficient impetus for systems to revise past practices and perhaps many of them have — including waiving copays now and not just in the future. But, as the Maryland Hunger Solutions survey found, there are still a few where debt collection agencies are employed, where students might be given notes by cashiers or pink slips or where matters of repayment are communicated with the student instead of the parents or guardians only.
Why treat students this way? To recover 30 cents or even 70 cents a day? What such practices ignore is that too many students in this state are food insecure. During the past school year, there were 333,000 students in Maryland eligible for free meals and another 51,000 who qualified for reduced price. But there are also students living in poverty who haven’t signed up for the USDA’s School Breakfast and National Student Lunch programs despite their circumstances who incur meal debt, too. Should they be treated as slackers or freeloaders? That seems problematic, particularly in a state that can well afford to feed its school children. An inability to pay for meals may be the first warning sign of a family struggling financially.
Clearly, the top priority for every school district should be to make sure every student has access to proper nutrition so that they may thrive in the classroom. But on top of that, feeding young people should not require shaming them in any way. Of all the places where state and local governments might look to find cost savings or efficiencies in schools, how much is taken out of the pockets of children in the cafeteria does not deserve any serious consideration. Hungry kids aren’t prepared to learn but kids who are regularly humiliated aren’t going to be effective students either. Too much is at stake in educating the next generation to allow school meal debt to become such an obstacle to learning.