2021 | Schools

MCPS considering alternate meals for students with lunch debt

Advocates fear new policy would ‘shame’ some students

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Update: The school board on Thursday afternoon announced that it has pulled the proposal from the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

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Education advocates say a proposed Montgomery County Public Schools policy requiring that some students with unpaid lunch bills get “alternative meals” would promote “lunch shaming” and inequity.

The draft policy, which the school board will consider next week, was first written in 2019. It aims to address a U.S. Department of Agriculture requirement that school districts develop policies on communicating how they handle debts.

The proposed MCPS policy says families that do not qualify for federal free and reduced-price meal programs but have a lunch debt of more than $35 would get “alternative meals” — usually a sandwich rather than a hot meal — until the debt is paid.

As the district works to comply with the federal mandate, advocates are concerned that students will be unnecessarily caught up in the process and should get the meal of their choosing while MCPS and their parents work out the debt.

“I think everyone agrees they need to meet the USDA requirements of having a policy, but I think we can do this better than providing an alternate meal,” said Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations. “… I’m sure the staff will do whatever they can to guard those families’ dignity. I just question if that’s enough.”

School district leaders argue that the students will still have access to healthy and nutritious meals and the policy could be revised if it’s found to be problematic.

Since Nov. 1, 2018, MCPS has provided the same meal options to all students regardless of their meal balances.

The district’s Educational Foundation at the time launched the “Dine with Dignity” program that aims to avoid “lunch shaming.” Instead, the aim was to educate families about the importance of proper nutrition and help them apply for the free meal program if they qualify, or, alternatively, “pursue payment from families that do not qualify” without involving the student.

There are 135 schools in MCPS with more than $250 in unpaid meal fees, according to the program’s website. Six schools have more than $10,000 in meal debts.

During a recent school board committee meeting, MCPS presented data that showed a “sharp increase” in debts at all grade levels after the Dine with Dignity program was established.

The data showed roughly 8,000 students owed a total of about $62,320 in September 2019, compared to nearly 16,000 students owing $365,826 in January 2020.

Rather than taking an approach that penalizes a child, Simonson suggested that the district strike the proposal that students receive an alternate meal and instead focus on helping families who might need financial assistance.

She said she understands that MCPS needs a policy, but it could be done better and with more empathy for children. She suggested that it could wait until USDA free meal waivers instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic expire in June 2022.

“If somebody has trouble paying for school meals, they’re having trouble paying a lot of other things, too,” Simonson said. “If the pandemic did not teach us anything else, it taught us the school is a heck of a lot more than just the place where our kids get educated. This is another example of how we might learn about the needs of a family because of the lunch debt, but then have the opportunity to connect them to other resources and options.”

During a school board Policy Management Committee meeting in March, members, including Pat O’Neill, took issue with public comments that she said “painted the picture that the Board was cold and heartless and … sort of … gunning families during a pandemic.”

O’Neill repeatedly emphasized that the school board developed the policy solely to comply with federal regulations from the USDA that mandate a policy that “proves we are being fiscally sound.” She said even if the policy is adopted, it would not be implemented until the USDA free meal waivers expire in 2022.

During the meeting, MCPS Director of Materials Management Eugenia Dawson added: “That’s the main reason behind it, and we will not under any circumstances not provide nutritional meals.”

The policy being considered says students with more than $35 in meal debt (the cost of about eight meals) would receive a sliced turkey and cheese sandwich on a whole grain roll, fruit and milk. The sandwich would be made available as an option to all students, regardless of their account status.

Other districts in Maryland, including Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County, also provide such “alternate” meals for students with debts. Anne Arundel County begins doing so with a debt equal to five meals, and Baltimore County does so when a student’s debt reaches $6, according to MCPS documents.

Fania Yangarber, executive director of Healthy School Food Maryland, a coalition that promotes nutritious meals, said it is her understanding that the child isn’t told that they must have the alternate meal until they go to pay — after they have chosen their meal. So, if they chose a hot meal, it would be replaced with the sandwich “in front of everyone,” she said.

“Here we are coming off a worldwide traumatic event and we’re talking about how we value the health and well-being of students, but yet we’re willing to inflict these daily traumas when they go through the lunch line for the sole purpose of sending a message home,” Yangarber said. “It doesn’t make sense to come off such a difficult time for everybody and to even consider reinstituting this policy.”

The debt for students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals would still be paid by the Dine with Dignity fund, according to the policy.

In an interview on Wednesday, O’Neill said the concerns about the policy were not fair and “not how we’ll operate.”

“Staff feels very strongly that we haven’t complied with what the federal government requires, and … any policy that has a negative impact on children can be revised at any time,” she said.

The policy says that “to the greatest extent possible” communication about students’ unpaid lunch debt will be with their parents or guardians. It also says that “to the extent possible, consequences for unpaid school cafeteria account charges shall not be incurred by students” and the district can create community partnerships to help offset students’ meal charges.

Ultimately, Yangarber wants to ensure that children have access to meals without feeling embarrassed or singled out based on what they can afford.

“If a child is hungry in the middle of the day, and the cafeteria is open, don’t we want them to feel comfortable going in there and getting a meal?” she said. “I mean, what kind of school district do we want to be?”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com