Find creative approaches to lunch money challenge

News and images of school cafeteria workers dumping lunches in the trash in front of horrified children with unpaid meal debts recently helped coin an unflattering term for such practices. The social media-friendly moniker is “lunch shaming” and widespread negative publicity about such practices has school officials in many districts searching for ways to end draconian methods while also ensuring their school lunch accounts do not end the year in a deficit.

While the prospect of terrified, hungry, publicly humiliated and shamed children set social media spheres abuzz with criticism of school officials and even led U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro to introduce a so-called Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, truly solving this dilemma requires more than Twitter and Facebook ire and prohibiting certain practices. Certainly, we strenuously agree that no child should ever be publicly shamed, humiliated, left hungry or even made to eat a somewhat sub-standard lunch because their parents failed to pay the meal bill.

Still, with school districts facing budget pressures, including the uncertainty caused state lawmakers’ inability to agree on a state budget, this is not as simple an issue as some digital wizards would lead the public the believe. Most school meal accounts operate on razor thin margins and the money to pay for meals must come from some place.

This must be an issue solved among adults. Children should have access to healthy food in school regardless of their account standings.

Another irrefutable action: families in which financial constraints are not an issue need to pay up and not use forgetfulness or being over-scheduled as an excuse to ignore their children’s school meal accounts.

Beyond these points, however, steps to solve this school conundrum get complicated.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s free and reduced-price lunch program ensures low-income children are fed and schools are paid for the food they hand out, school officials say it can be difficult to get parents to apply. Families whose financial situation changes suddenly due to a major health issue or loss of employment are among those particularly reluctant to admit they need assistance for their children.

There are common-sense steps and practices schools can take to ease the pressure of unpaid meal debts. In May, the agriculture department detailed some of these in a report titled “Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge.” School officials should take to heart some of the best practices the report recommends.

For example, community outreach is strongly urged. It’s been shown repeatedly that some parents, including those who did not have positive experiences in school themselves and those who are not native English speakers or who are low-income, do not easily communicate with school officials. They might feel comfortable, however, in their churches, at a local social service agency or with community leaders who speak their native language. School officials should work with these various groups and allow families to apply for free and reduced-priced school meals through these means.

School districts should consider making meal accounts pre-paid, removing the question of who owes and who doesn’t from the lunch line. Debt should be addressed outside the cafeteria. And schools need to provide a variety of payment methods. The real world uses cash, check, PayPal, credit and debit cards and so should schools.

Variety also is more effective when it comes to communication. School officials frequently bemoan the fact that parents don’t read notices sent home in backpacks. So why not communicate via text, phone, in writing, in school manuals, via social media and in person at school events. And since families face a deluge of notes, forms, papers and other communications at the beginning of the school year, school officials might try getting a jump on school lunch accounts during the summer months.

In some locations, parents and teachers have donated money or set up Go Fund Me accounts to raise money to pay off delinquent meal accounts. Parent-Teacher Organizations, civic groups and school leaders should make such efforts a regular part of their annual fund-raising campaigns.

School officials frequently use the term “community” to describe the sense of belonging they strive to foster within their buildings. A community should work together to ensure its children remain hunger-free.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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