New state law ends singling out students who can’t afford lunch

The unintended consequences could be costly for school districts.

OLYMPIA — Washington wants to make sure schools don’t embarrass students in the lunch line.

A new state law bars school staff from taking any actions which single out students who are unable to pay for their meal or to receive it due to previously unpaid meal charges.

It specifically outlaws giving them an alternative meal, which means some school districts in Snohomish County will likely have to end their practice of providing a free bagged lunch to students with unpaid debt as a courtesy so they don’t go hungry.

And the new law may in fact clear the way for all students in Washington public schools, whether they pay full price, or qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, and even those with an outstanding bill for their meals, to get breakfasts and lunches for free every day.

Which isn’t a bad deal but could be an expensive one for school districts, which will have to eat the costs.

While that may not have been the intention when Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, and anti-hunger activists drew up the legislation at the start of the year, it is an outcome they say can be addressed in the next session.

“We do want kids to be fed. We don’t want schools left on the hook financially,” said Christina Wong, director of public policy and advocacy for Northwest Harvest. “The responsibility should fall squarely on the shoulders of adults to ensure that schools get paid and their child gets a meal. We want to be sure children are not put in the middle of this.”

The Washington School Nutrition Association wanted Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill.

In an eight-page letter, the association in March warned the change would precipitate a surge in meal debt in school districts as students and their parents realize hot meals will be available at no charge regardless of one’s ability to pay or participation in the federal meal program.

And over time, the group cautioned, the number of families enrolling in or reapplying for the free and reduced lunch program might decline, which would result in districts receiving fewer federal dollars to reimburse meal costs.

“Positive intent does not always result in effective legislation,” wrote Paula Gaultieri, association president and food service manager for the Northshore School District. “More work on this bill is needed to ensure positive outcomes for students and prevent potential educational funding losses and unanticipated financial burdens for school districts.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal harbored some of the same concerns but did not ask the governor to veto the bill.

“We felt the intention of the legislation was so solid we could work to fix the problems,” said Nathan Olson, communications director for the superintendent.

When the law takes effect June 7, Washington will join states such as Oregon, California and New Mexico in targeting “lunch shaming,” a term used to describe various practices which identify or stigmatize a student who cannot afford a meal because they lack enough cash in their pocket, have insufficient funds in their school meal charge account or accrued a large unpaid meal debt.

The new Washington law directs school employees to work with parents to pay their debts and do all they can to sign up families for federal meal assistance.

And it says no school employee may “take any action that would publicly identify a student who cannot pay for a school meal or for meals previously served to the student, including but not limited to requiring the student to wear a wristband, hand stamp, or other identifying marker, or by serving the student an alternative meal.”

Schools also are barred from requiring students to carry out chores in exchange for a meal or for erasing a school meal debt. Nor can a school serve a meal to a student and then make them throw it out when it is realized the student cannot pay or has a large debt.

Peterson said he was visiting family in New Mexico last year when he read a newspaper story about that state’s anti-shaming law. He did a little research and learned a similar law did not exist in Washington and decided to pursue it.

When he started working on House Bill 2610, he said his primary goal was to prevent the public chastising of any student with an overdue account. He wanted to press school districts to deal more directly with parents and to be more proactive in enrolling them in federal meal programs.

The notion that the law creates a universal free lunch program is a “worst-case scenario,” he said.

“We will do some work in the interim to put some sideboards into the bill or find other ways to ensure that school districts are not on the hook for unpaid debt,” he said.

In Oregon, which enacted a similar law in August, there are early signs it may be causing unpaid meal debt to rise and families to move more slowly to reapply for federal meal assistance.

Nathan Roedel, executive director of nutrition services for the Hillsboro School District west of Portland, sent surveys to the 220 school districts in the state in late November and early December.

Thirty-seven districts representing 265,000 students — a little less than half of the state’s total — responded to share their experiences, he said.

Of the total, 78 percent reported unpaid meal charges to be “significantly” higher than the previous year and that their employees were doing more than the law required in trying to contact parents to collect payments, he said.

As for his own district, Roedel said the unpaid meal charge debt is at $25,000 now and could reach $40,000 by the end of the school year. By comparison, it was around $1,100 at the end of the last school year, he said.

For years, school districts in Snohomish County and around the country have wrestled with how to keep students fed with their dignity intact even as they and their families racked up sizable bills for meal charges.

Three-quarters of school districts nationwide had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016 school year, according to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that represents school nutrition professionals around the country.

As of November, the tab for unpaid lunches in Snohomish County districts this school year ranged from a few dollars to $76,000. Although high, it is far less than the $200,000 reported by the Edmonds School District a decade ago.

In the meantime, Everett, Monroe, Marysville and other local districts may need to revise their meal charging policies. Right now in those districts, students with large debts cannot get a hot meal and are served a bag lunch as an alternative. Representatives of the districts said they are reviewing the law to see how its provisions may affect their policies.

Such study is happening in most districts right now, said Kim Elkins, nutrition director for the Mead School District in Spokane and member of the public policy and legislative committee of the state nutrition association.

The law curbs contact between schools and students on their unpaid meal accounts. Instead it dictates when schools must notify a parent or guardian of a negative balance in their child’s account.

For the most part, this has already been going on. Elkins estimates employees in her district collectively spend about 12 hours each school day calling, emailing and writing parents in pursuit of payments and to provide potential avenues for assistance.

“We totally support no lunch shaming,” she said. “We’re all about feeding kids. That’s our passion.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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