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Tracy O'Connell Novick @TracyNovick
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I’ve seen a lot of people posting about Cranston RI turning school meal charges over to collection agencies. A quick thread on why you’re seeing this now and how it’s an example of policy and budget working hand in hand...or not working at all.…
Remember this article (and the hundreds of ones like it) on school lunch shaming?…
The “nicer” examples were the kids get a cheese sandwich instead of a hot lunch, but there were lots of more egregious examples.
Those articles got a lot of press, because people don’t like seeing little kids cry and/or go hungry.
Me, either.

Did you wonder why schools were doing it, though?
By and large (there are always exceptions), cafeterias aren’t staffed with mean people who like to make kids cry.
I mean, it’s a miserable job to do if you don’t like feeding kids.
But grownups are not good at remembering to send money to school for things (I can see all the teachers who have to collect for field trips nodding).
And lunch money is a scramble for quarters and singles on the way out the door.
And not everybody trusts online payment.
A kid coming home from a day of a cheese sandwich makes it a lot more likely somebody will pay for the lunches that have already been eaten.
(This is not me arguing for that—personally, I think we should just feed everyone. More on that in a second)
But we had all these articles about kids being humiliated and not eating and people felt badly and complained.
The USDA (yes, the US Dept of Agriculture oversees the federal school lunch program) said to districts, you need to come out with a policy on lunch debt collection.
The subtext was knock off the lunch shaming, but that wasn’t the language.
Districts then dutifully adopted new policies.
(MASC sent out a sample one.)
Many said, fair enough: we’ll leave kids out of it. No more lunch shaming. We’ll deal only with adults.

Guess how easy it is for the average adult to dodge calls from school on lunch debt?
Now school nutrition is a financially precarious operation. The aim most places is for it to break even, but that is not easy.
And that’s with everyone who is supposed to be paying doing so.
Now lots aren’t.

And that’s where policy meets budget. We adopted the policies, and now we are seeing budgetary impacts.
If they’ve gotten to collection agencies, it’s a good bet they’ve tried a lot else. But it is a significant financial issue for some districts.
Now the other option, of course, is just for districts to eat the debt (no pun intended).
You could just...feed the kids (which is what Community Eligibility has made possible for districts with high rates of poverty).
But that is going to take local district resources and is going to be competing with the other parts of the budget.
So here’s the deal:
If you aren’t a universal free lunch district, there is a good chance this is happening in your district.
You may not have heard about it yet (lots of school nutrition and business offices are quietly sweating it out right now).
The answer is not to complain about collection agencies: the district is attempting to fulfill the policy within the budget they have been allocated.
The (long term) answer is also not (as much as they may be necessary short term) to do fundraisers to knock off school lunch debt after it happens.
It’s to decide that if we as a community don’t like kids being shamed, and we as a community don’t like kids going hungry, then we don’t shame them and we just feed them as a community.
But that means PAYING FOR IT.

That means actually allocating public funds for feeding kids. And some of them are going to have to be local, as things are currently run.
It means that passing POLICY without passing BUDGETS is meaningless (and creates complications for your administration, besides).
We ALL always need to consider budgetary impacts of policy.

So don’t feel good about ending lunch shaming if you haven’t considered how we’re going to pay for the lunches kids are eating.
And if you advocated for the end of lunch shaming, you ought to be just as—more—concerned about ending lunch debt.
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