By Christian Mackey
In 2017, national media attention was given to stigmatizing procedures in loaning school meals to students who did not bring a packed lunch, or could not afford lunch from the cafeteria. Deemed “lunch shaming,” these practices include stamping students’ hands, requiring students to perform custodial duties, and providing “alternate meals”.[i] These methods, by design, stigmatize students or keep them from participating in recess, both of which may impact students’ learning and social engagement. Institutional lunch shaming also directly targets students even though they often rely on caregivers’ planning and income for having a meal at school.
Lunch shaming stories in the media coincided with a memo from the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) requiring school districts using the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to adopt a “School Meal Charge Policy” by July 1, 2017. These policies were intended to clarify a school district’s procedures for charging the cost of an unpaid meal to an account, including the methods, like lunch shaming, a district may employ to collect indebted funds. Along with their mandate for meal charge policies, the FNS republished a seventy-one-page guidebook, Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge, that explained the issue of meal charging in full. This guidance includes worksheets that outline the topics meal charge policies should discuss, even though the memo does not require that final policies cover those recommended items.
In September 2017, the Food Research and Action Center reviewed meal charge policies from a sample of large school districts and found that a majority failed to adequately address a number of items suggested by the FNS, including lunch stigma. Was it possible school districts of smaller size were coming up short as well?
The most basic set of FNS recommendations, Local Meal Charge Policy Considerations for All SFAs, outlines ten areas for districts to address in their policies. This worksheet provided the criteria for this examination of district meal charge policies. In Washtenaw County, Michigan, there are nine public school districts representing a diversity in size and classification (urban, rural, etc.). Only seven of these districts’ policies were examined by the author because one district was nonresponsive and another utilized the Community Eligibility Provision[ii] so it was not required to have a meal charge policy.
Of the reviewed policies, none covered all of the suggested themes outlined in Local Meal Charge Policy Considerations for All SFAs. In fact, most of the policies failed to mention three or more of the ten items in the worksheet. There was no subjectively identifiable pattern between the size and classification of the district and the number of checklist items their meal charge policy covered.
All of the collected meal charge policies allowed prepayment and charging to accounts with districts’ food service. Prepayment into these accounts offer a buffer against situations where a student would accrue debt to obtain a meal. However, policies varied in how a balance equal to or below zero dollars affected how students could charge a meal. One district allowed no charging to an account if doing so would bring the balance below zero. That district also failed to mention alternate meal options, inferring that a student accruing a negative balance would go without a lunch that day. While that is seemingly permissible under the FNS memo, it runs counter to the mission of the NSLP to ensure students receive a meal on school days.
Another commonality among policies was a deficit in language outlining default procedures that directly notify parents about their student’s account balance, with two policies failing to mention communication of debt whatsoever. For the others, the students are told to share their account balance to their caregivers. While older students may be reasonably trusted with this responsibility, some districts state no additional method of debt communication at the elementary school level.
Three of the seven district policies stipulated some level of debt at which only alternate meals would be served to a student. This goes against the FNS recommendation to always provide a regular, reimbursable meal to students regardless of account balance. Of these three, only one district described what the alternate meal would contain. Districts who elect to serve them are prompted by FNS meal charge policy worksheets to describe the components of their alternate meals as they pose a potential concern for the safety of students who have food restrictions.
Only one of the seven districts published a policy that explicitly mentioned the topic of stigma. This policy stated that food service staff would prioritize discretion and avoid identifying students who charge a meal to their account while providing a regular, reimbursable meal. This topic is important to consider given stigma around meal charging was one of the key tenets of the public attention to lunch shaming in 2017.
No district in Washtenaw County produced a meal charge policy that contained all of the basic items recommended by the FNS. Districts may want to revisit their current policies to ensure delinquent debt communication is directly to caregivers, the provision of alternate meals is ended, and language describing efforts to reduce stigma of meal charging is included. Administrators of school lunch programs are under constant pressure to provide healthy meals with what some may consider to be inadequate funding; therefore, lunch shaming and its effects may be only a small concern relative to other issues they encounter every day. However, policies around meal charging and lunch shaming may have a large impact on an individual student, potentially affecting their socialization and academic performance. Reviewing and incorporating the items on guidances provided by the FNS is one-way school food authorities can go beyond the content of their meals to elevate student wellbeing. While this is not a comprehensive state or regional analysis of meal charge policies, it may indicate a potential issue of school food directors falling short on recommended government guidelines.
Photo by jake.bogar on flickr
[i] Alternate Meals are those which include items that are not federally reimbursable under FNS standards and guidelines. These are often made from shelf-stable, low-cost ingredients and are not required to meet federal nutrition standard; for example, two slices of American cheese on white bread with canned fruit.
[ii] The Community Eligibility Provision is a program for low-income schools and school systems that provides full funding for every attending student to have school meals free of charge.
Christian Mackey is a school nutrition advocate and lifetime Michigan resident. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the University of Michigan and is a member of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Class of 2019. In recent years, he has worked with Project Healthy Schools and the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council to rectify and increase awareness of problems in school food in Michigan.