2021 | Schools

MCPS tables proposal for ‘alternate meals’ for students with unpaid lunch bills

Organizations, officials criticized policy, saying it promotes ‘lunch shaming’

share this

As public pushback mounted on Thursday, the Montgomery County Board of Education tabled a proposed policy on handling student meal debt from its Tuesday meeting agenda. The board was scheduled to take final action to adopt the policy.

On Wednesday, Bethesda Beat reported about a draft policy that proposed some students with more than $35 in unpaid lunch bills get “alternative meals” until their debt is paid. Education advocates had raised concerns that the policy punished students and that they should get the meal of their choosing while MCPS and their parents work out the debt.

MCPS argued that the policy was only being drafted to comply with a federal mandate that it develop policies on communicating how it handle debts and be “fiscally responsible” in maintaining its food services program.

On Thursday, organizations and officials locally and beyond blasted the proposed policy, saying it promotes “lunch shaming.”

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota congresswoman retweeted a link to the Bethesda Beat story, adding in part: “Let’s ban school lunch shaming, make all school meals universal and tax the rich to pay for it,” referring to the MCPS proposal. Her Tweet had been shared nearly 800 times within two hours.

Maryland Del. Gabe Acevero (D-Montgomery Village) shared the Bethesda Beat story on Twitter and called the proposal “shameful.”

“We are one of the wealthiest counties, in one of the wealthiest states in America; ‘lunch debt’ shouldn’t exist. Our kids can’t learn on an empty stomach & we shouldn’t lunch shame them. School meals should be free.”

Several student and community advocacy organizations also criticized the proposal.

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.

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.

In an interview on Wednesday, school board member Pat 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.

Since November 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.

The school board announced on Twitter at about 2 p.m. Thursday that it had removed consideration of the draft policy from its Tuesday meeting agenda. The board did not give an updated date for consideration.

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