After pushback tabled the proposal for a year, the Montgomery County Board of Education this week is expected to finalize changes to a policy that dictates how and when it collects students’ debt for school meals. The changes remove a previously-proposed penalty that those with debt receive a different meal than their peers.
In May of 2021, the school board was poised to finalize changes to the policy, which would have required students with unpaid bills to get “alternative meals.”
Bethesda Beat reported about the proposal, prompting widespread backlash from education advocates and public officials locally and beyond, who said the alternate meals — a sandwich, fruit and milk rather than a hot meal — would cause bullying and inequity among students.
The new policy changes, which will be discussed on Tuesday and remove the alternate meal requirement, were greeted with relief by advocates, though they hope to eventually see charges waived for more students at different income levels, regardless of whether they are eligible for federal waivers.
“It addresses our concerns that bringing back an alternative meal policy was never appropriate, but certainly is inappropriate on the heels of the pandemic, so that’s a good thing to see,” said Fania Yangarber, executive director of Healthy School Food Maryland, a coalition that promotes nutritious meals.
Montgomery County Public Schools last year argued that the policy was being drafted to comply with a U.S. Department of Agriculture mandate that it develop policies on communicating how it handles debts and be “fiscally responsible” in maintaining its food services program. The USDA oversees school districts’ meal distribution.
Still, the proposal was pulled from the school board’s agenda the day after Bethesda Beat reported about it and as public pressure mounted concerning the use of alternate meals.
The draft MCPS policy proposed in 2021 said students whose families do not qualify for federal free and reduced-price meal programs (FARMS) but who have a lunch debt of more than $35 would get the “alternative meals” until the debt is paid.
Now, the policy, which is expected to be adopted Tuesday, says the district’s superintendent may set a threshold for negative meal balances that, if hit, would mean the student would not be able to charge a la carte items to their account. The district would then attempt to get payment from the student’s family if the family does not qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, according to the policy.
If a student qualifies for free or reduced-priced meals — a measure the district uses to indicate poverty — repayment would not be sought, according to the proposed policy.
The draft policy also says that the superintendent can seek funding options for unpaid meal debts through partnerships with community organizations or donations.
According to the draft policy, communication about students’ unpaid lunch debt will be with their parents or guardians “to the greatest extent possible.” It also says that “to the extent possible, consequences for unpaid school cafeteria account charges shall not be incurred by students.”
Yangarber said she’s worried that relying on federal income requirements to determine who must repay debts could exclude many families who still need financial help but aren’t eligible for FARMS.
There are specific parameters and income requirements for people who are eligible for FARMS. For example, for a family of four to be eligible, the household income must be less than $34,000. But the “self sufficiency standard” for a family of four to live in Montgomery County is $86,000, according to the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.
So, families who fall between the two figures could struggle to make ends meet financially, and that problem could be compounded by school meal debt, Yangarber said.
“I don’t think they’re any less worthy of clemency and assistance than the kids who explicitly qualify for FARMS because they meet an arbitrary cutoff,” Yangarber said. “There needs to be some more forward thinking about how we deal with families who need help.”
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 so-called “lunch shaming” that can occur when students receive meals different than their peers. 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 of the district’s 209 schools have more than $10,000 in meal debts.
If adopted on Tuesday, the changes to MCPS’ meal policy would go into effect July 1.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org