When Denver Public Schools superintendent Tom Boasberg announced last August that the district “will feed every kid, every day,” the unpaid balance on student lunches stood at $13,000.
The announcement followed revelations that some DPS students were served cold “alternative” meals when their lunch accounts went into the red, and the change was designed to put an end to the alleged “lunch shaming.”
But over the last year DPS’ unpaid student lunch debt exploded to $356,000 — an increase over over 2700% — and left officials scrambling to make up the lost revenue through junk food sales in elementary school cafeterias and recruitment drives for federal free and reduced price meal programs, Chalkbeat reports.
It’s a similar situation in Washington’s Edmonds School District, which launched a pilot program last year to provide lunches for all students, whether they pay for the meal or not. Previously, Edmonds schools provided students who couldn’t pay with a brown bag lunch that included a sandwich, fruit and milk, KING 5 reports.
This year, “those who didn’t qualify for a federally subsidized free or reduced lunch would simply have a bill sent home. It turns out, though, thousands of families in the district have either forgotten or simply chosen not to pay their tabs,” according to the television station.
“The district is now owed more than $105,000. The overwhelming majority of that – some $71,000 – is owed by families who can afford to pay.”
Last year’s student lunch debts totaled just $6,000, which was paid off with donations from the community. This year, however, taxpayers are footing the bill directly out of the district’s general fund.
Edmonds School District spokeswoman Kelly Franson acknowledged that some are seemingly taking advantage of the new lunch policy, but did not provide a clear picture on how officials hope to fix the problem.
“That is the tricky area. At this time, we are piloting some different ideas, switching our lines around, doing some different outreach, trying to connect with families in different ways, really evaluating how we communicate with kiddos and communicate with families,” she told KING 5.
“We’re trying to find that balance, and our debt shows were still working towards what would be a better system for the future….”
Schools across the country have focused on the issue of so-called “lunch shaming” in the wake of high-profile reports of schools tossing lunches or embarrassing students who can’t afford to pay. In some places, officials have branded students with stamps or stickers when they can’t pay up, prompting fierce public blacklash.
As a result, many schools banished “lunch shaming” practices, while lawmakers in states like New York, Iowa, and New Mexico have passed laws to address the issue.
“The idea behind such measures is to free students from the burden of debt they have no power to pay and ensure they don’t go hungry at school,” Chalkbeat reports. “But with school districts obligated to pay for the meals, food service leaders are often left scrambling to cover mounting costs.”
Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, told the news site it’s an issue the organization representing school food workers is watching closely.
“In many districts, allowing all kids to automatically get a free meal …. Can turn into a real financial challenge for the program,” she said.
It’s a lesson DPS is learning the hard way.
The district used a $100,000 grant to pay off some of the lunch debt, but hasn’t yet come up with a plan to cover the remaining $256,000, said Theresa Pena, outreach coordinator for the district’s nutrition department.
Denver elementary school principal Christine Fleming said she used to reserve a few hundred dollars in a “principal’s account” each year to cover unpaid lunches, but DPS’ new free-for-all lunch policy convinced her and other principals to put an end to the practice.
“A lot of them said, ‘Zero out my principal account. I’m not going to do that anymore,’” Fleming told Chalkbeat.