OLYMPIA — A year-old law ensuring students receive lunch without fear of embarrassment if they are unable to pay is stoking a rise in unpaid meal debts for school districts around the state.
Now, the law’s author is pushing for changes to ease the financial impact and allow lunch room workers to deny meals to high schoolers who cannot pay and whose parents don’t want them running up a tab.
A bill making its way through the state House supports greater independence for districts in managing meal accounts and collecting debts while still preventing public chastising of any student with an overdue account.
“One of our biggest issues we’re struggling with is the increasing meal debt and what do school districts do with that number,” said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds. “A lot of time and energy is spent on this issue by people who are really trying to make this work.”
Peterson’s 2018 law prohibits “lunch shaming,” a term used to describe various practices which identify or stigmatize a student who cannot afford a meal. It could be they lack enough cash in their pocket, have insufficient funds in their school meal charge account or have accrued a large unpaid meal debt.
Dubbed the Hunger-Free Student Bill of Rights, it bars school staff from taking any actions which single out students and specifically outlaws providing an alternative meal, like a bagged lunch, which some school districts in Snohomish County had routinely done.
The law sets new guidelines aimed at pressing districts to deal more directly with parents and to be more proactive in enrolling families in federal meal programs.
Upon its passage in March, school officials, including those overseeing meal programs, voiced concern it would clear the way for any student to get breakfast and lunch for free every day regardless of their financial situation. Districts essentially could not say no to anyone.
The Washington School Nutrition Association wanted Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill.
The association warned it would cause a surge in meal debt. The number of families enrolling in or reapplying for the free and reduced lunch program might decline as parents realized hot meals were available to their children even if they didn’t participate in the federal program, the group said. Any drop would result in districts receiving fewer federal dollars to defray meal costs.
Those warnings appear to have come true.
In the Marysville School District, unpaid meal debt stands at $77,000 this school year compared to $31,000 for the entirety of the previous year.
Mike Sullivan, the executive director of finance and operations, said the dramatic change is a result of the law.
“We have always recognized meal debt as an adult issue with kid consequences. Therefore, in the past, we would cap the limit of charges allowed to the equivalent of five lunches and then provide the student with a courtesy meal, which consisted of our lowest cost menu offering for the day,” he said.
“Now, due to the new legislation, meals are to be provided to students regardless of the amount of debt owing on their accounts, resulting in higher meal debt across the district,” he said.
A similar though less dramatic rise is occurring in the Everett School District.
The balance for unpaid meals this school year was $6,233 on Jan. 31, compared to $4,131 for the same period in the last school year, according to Jeff Moore, the finance director.
With little or no barrier to obtaining a meal, fewer families are applying for the federal free and reduced school meals program, he said.
The district has boosted its outreach efforts and added staff to focus specifically on contacting families regarding the issue.
”While the immediate focus may be on the cost of free lunches, the larger fiscal impact could be a reduction in federal funding that directly supports our high-poverty schools,” Moore said.
In the Monroe School District, unpaid debt across all grade levels reached $41,059 in June 2018. It stood at $35,372 as of Wednesday.
The district is using grants from the Kroger Co. and Monroe Public Schools Foundation to pay down the debt of those with free and reduced lunch accounts, said Tamara Krache, a district spokeswoman.
The situation in the Edmonds School District has evolved.
Two years ago, district policy didn’t allow for students to charge meals, which led to minimal meal debt, according to district spokeswoman Kelly Franson.
In the 2017-18 school year, the district set out to feed every student the same lunch regardless of their ability to pay. It offered unlimited meal charges and at year’s end the balance was $117,000 in unpaid debt.
This school year, the district is taking steps to cap debt by setting a charge limit at secondary schools and increasing communication with families about their children’s accounts.
Halfway through the year, meal debt is a little over $30,000, she said.
Peterson authored House Bill 1685 to address some of these issues.
One revision would make it less prescriptive on how and when districts must reach out to parents.
For example, the law requires that school districts contact a parent or guardian if a student has not paid for meals for five days straight. Under the proposed bill, school districts can adopt their own notification policy. Otherwise, guardians should be contacted within 10 days of a student’s meal account reaching a negative balance.
Another change would allow districts to offer a less-expensive alternative meal to those who are unable to pay for a meal or to receive one because of unpaid charges. Whatever is offered must be a meal that any other student could get.
Finally, under the proposed bill, student in grades 9-12 could be denied a meal or a la carte food item if the state does not provide money to the districts to cover the cost.
And schools could deny high school students a lunch if they reached the spending limit on their meal charge account established by their parent or guardian.
“It fixes a few things but it doesn’t fix enough,” said Kim Elkins, nutrition director for the Mead School District in Spokane and chairwoman of the legislative committee of the nutrition association. “The law is still very cumbersome. The big thing that isn’t addressed in this bill is funding.”
Without money, “trays can be pulled” from students in the lunch line, association lobbyist Mitch Denning told the House Education Committee during a Feb. 12 hearing.
In the same hearing, Leanne Eko, director of child nutrition programs for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said it is a good start.
“This will help,” she said. “But there are still some areas that will continue to cause quite a bit of debt.”