In 2019, a Summit County school district was under fire for its lunch policy, which said that a student who has a certain amount of debt built up in their school lunch account received an “alternative” to the hot lunch.
The debt was $9, according to the child’s grandparents, who received national attention for the dust-up.
Green Local Schools has since changed their policy, but the concept of an alternative lunch – a brown bag lunch with a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich as the entree – still exists within school districts.
Some Ohio school districts have made the “alternative” an option for all students, possibly reducing the stigma that comes from the recognition that a provided lunch is different because of a student’s socio-economic status.
“You can imagine what that does to that child in the moment, and then also over time,” said Katherine Ungar, of the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio and the Hunger-Free Schools Ohio Coalition, when speaking to a state legislative caucus on children’s issues.
While those in the state pushing to solve the state’s child hunger issue say a child being able to eat, no matter the entree, is a good thing, the idea of student debt shouldn’t be a concern for students and parents trying to get through a school day.
Some of the challenges in bringing free or reduced lunch, as well as breakfast, come from the cost of food and school district funding challenges as well. With the help of federal school nutrition programs, which anti-hunger advocates hope will include an extension of pandemic-era universal school lunch programs nationwide that have since expired, the schools could help families struggling to make ends meet as the cost of living remains high.
“By leaning in to offering meals to all students, it’s really a great way to support households with the increased cost of food,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school time programs for the D.C.-based Food Research & Action Center.
According to 2021 data from the Education Data Initiative, the average school meal debt in Ohio was more than $169. Total state meal debt in the state was listed at $17.3 million.
In Ohio, about 730,000 participated in free lunch programs during the 2020-2021 school year, according to FRAC data. Nationally, 19.8 million children had free lunch on an average day.
FitzSimons said 3 out of 4 school districts in the country have unpaid school meal fees, citing a 2019 report from the School Nutrition Association.
Ohio has no legislation related to student debt, but does require all schools with 20% or more students certified for free meals to participate in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. A breakfast program must be established after half of the parents of children in a school request one, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
Ungar said some school districts in the state tie the student debt to the ability to graduate, along with consequences for participation in extracurricular activities. Some schools see charities or religious organizations who offer to pay off some of the debt, alleviating some of the pain students may see if they hold debt.
But providing school meals to every child every day without worrying about child debt would take away the stress and address the issue, Ungar said.
“There’s no need for anti-lunch shaming legislation because all children are able to access school meals at no cost and don’t accrue school meal debt,” Ungar told the OCJ.
For free meals, eligibility is for children from families at or below 130% of the poverty level, and income levels between 130% and 185% of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price lunch. For 2022-2023, 130% of the poverty level is a household making $36,075 or less for free meals, $51,338 for reduced meals.
But the programs only work for those students who participate, something that stigma can hamper. A report by the The Journal of Child Nutrition and Management matched FitzSimon’s comments surrounding stigma and participation in school lunch programs. Meal charge policies and tactics for debt-payment enforcement from Local Education Agencies in three USDA regions were studied.
“Shaming practices, such as having children with delinquent accounts sit at a different lunch table, stamping their hand, or giving them a different ‘alternative’ meal, have developed as a result of the need to collect debt,” the study stated.
In the end, the study recommended “stronger anti-shaming policies for unpaid meals” to reduce the number of shaming instances.
“…Or, in other words, shaming strategies are not useful for reducing unpaid meals, but may affect children in other ways,” according to the study.
California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Vermont have all passed legislation for no-cost lunch, and Pennsylvania passed no-cost breakfast legislation as well. Maine, New Mexico, Virginia, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Texas, Iowa, Washington, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania have all passed anti-lunch shaming legislation, but a federal bill in 2019 to do the same stalled in Congress after passing the U.S. Senate.
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