2021 | Opinion

Opinion: MCPS should forgive student debt, provide free healthy meals

Substituting ‘alternate’ meals because of money owed is humiliating

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The Montgomery County Board of Education has delayed action on a proposal to collect money from students for burgers and pizza they ate more than a year ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan was also to reinstate the humiliating practice of giving children “alternate” meals and to send home a message if a parent or guardian fell behind on paying their child’s school meal bill.

The delay is good news, but this policy should never be considered again.

On Thursday, organizations and officials, locally and nationally, blasted the proposed policy. Such a backward-looking policy does not reflect the reality of today and defies common sense.

Why was the school board’s Policy Committee advancing this policy? Because Montgomery County Public Schools has been delinquent in meeting a 2016 U.S. Department of Agriculture requirement for school districts to establish clear, consistent policies for unpaid school meals, including details about “alternate meals.” Also, more than $400,000 in delinquent school lunch debt is still on the books, some dating to 2018.

Can the backward-looking proposal get even worse? Yes. It puts the burden of collecting debt squarely on school cafeteria workers. Resolving the existing debt would require pursuing 16,000 individual students, 98% of whom owe less than $200 each.

It is outrageous of the school board to ask cafeteria workers — who have been standing outside distributing food to school kids in the heat, rain, and cold during a pandemic — to become debt-collection agents.

MCPS, just forgive the debt. The world has changed. We are in a pandemic, during which many school children are going hungry. And the cutoff date for the USDA requirement was set three U.S. presidents ago.

The Biden USDA recently showed what forward thinking is: It announced that all school meals will be free through the end of next school year. We need similarly forward-looking policies at MCPS.

At Healthy School Food Maryland, we know there is a significant need for healthy food for school kids today. Since the pandemic began, we have been in the thick of things.

We have distributed more than 140,000 pounds of fresh produce to families with kids who might otherwise go hungry. This year, we are delivering 4,400-plus free school meals a week directly to school children’s front doors.

MCPS can easily absorb the outstanding debt. It is a tiny fraction — 0.7% — of the school food program’s nearly $60 million annual budget, and an even more miniscule part of MCPS annual budget of $2.8 billion. There is also $252 million in American Rescue Plan funds coming to MCPS. The school district can afford it.

Better still, MCPS should provide free healthy meals for all students, regardless of income, and make full use of available federal dollars. Let’s catch up to other large school districts, like New York City, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Houston, that already provide universal free school lunches.

MCPS should urge the USDA not to reinstate the inequitable tiered income-based eligibility for federal assistance for school meals. To qualify for free meals, a family of 4 may not earn more than $34,450 annually. That is far short of a living wage in Montgomery County and many families who exceed this threshold still find themselves in need and struggling to be food secure.

MCPS should ask Congress to make healthy school meals available for all, regardless of income, on a national scale, permanently.

COVID-19 highlighted many inequalities in our public school system, and especially in school meal programs. There has been oversized impact on low-income families.

MCPS Food & Nutrition Services has been trying to do its job in impossible circumstances since even before the pandemic. What it and hungry kids need to know is that the board of education has their back.

With a new school year ahead, let’s commit to food policies that focus on feeding all students healthy, nutritious school food. Let’s move the school meal program into the future with student-friendly, forward-looking policies.

Fania Yangarber is the executive director of Healthy School Food Maryland, a parent and student group committed to advocate for equitable improvements to school food policy that promotes the health and well-being of students; to help build the capacity of families to be active in the school community; and to increase transparency about the food environment in Montgomery County Public Schools.

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