“Lunch shaming” — actions like refusing a child lunch or giving them an alternate, smaller meal when they don’t have enough money — is now against the law in California, but how do school districts in Northern Utah handle the situation when a child runs out of lunch money?
The California law, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 12, requires school districts to notify parents or guardians no later than 10 days after the student overdraws their lunch account.
It also requires districts to “exhaust all options and methods to directly certify the pupil for free or reduced-price meals.”
If a child was eligible for free or reduced-price meals and not enrolled, the California legislation requires districts to refund families for meals they’ve paid for and any lunch account debt they accrued during the period of their eligibility.
The policies of districts in Northern Utah vary.
Ogden School District policy allows elementary students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch to overdraw their lunch accounts by $4.35, which would cover about three lunches, and secondary students to overdraw their accounts by $3.90, the cost of two lunches, according to policy included on the district’s website.
Notifications of lunch account balances are sent home weekly with elementary students, the policy says, and students are notified when they have a low balance.
When students reach these limits, they are provided an alternate lunch — a cheese sandwich and water free of charge, according to an email from Melanie Miller, child nutrition administrative assistant for the district.
“I think our approach first and foremost would be to simply check with the family and revisit the status of ... reduced (price) meals and free meals,” said Jer Bates, discussing what would be done in response if a child continued to accrue lunch account debt.
At Ogden School District, the majority of the students — 73.87% as measured in Oct. 31, 2018 — receive free lunch. This percentage includes students who quality for free or reduced-price lunch.
The district uses federal and local funds allocated through the Utah State Board of Education to provide free lunch to students who otherwise would qualify for a reduced price, Miller said.
Students in Weber School District who have a deficit in their lunch account are served the same hot lunch that every other student is served, said Cami Orr, assistant in Weber School District’s community relations office.
“In speaking with both our supervisor over child nutrition as well as the secretary for all elementary education, I have been assured that no child goes without a lunch,” Orr said. “... We work with parents to try to collect unpaid accounts, but regardless of that outcome, children in Weber School District always eat.”
Weber notifies parents by email when account balances are low, according to the district’s policy, which is on its website. The child nutrition program manager will also make calls to guardians if an account is delinquent, the policy says.
Letters are sent home to parents when a child’s negative balance reaches $10 and $20. The letters include repayment plan options.
If payment is not made or a payment plan is not arranged 10 days after a child’s account reaches $30.00 in the negative, the account will be referred to collections, according to the district’s policy.
Families with a total negative balance of $50 across more than one child at a single school, will also be referred to collections, according to the policy.
Davis School District policy provides the most specific prohibition of school responses that have been describe as “lunch shaming.”
The Davis policy states that “school lunch employees shall not withhold a meal, provide an alternate meal, pull a student from the line, ask the student to call his parent or friend, stamp the student’ hand, or otherwise call attention to the student who has forgotten or lost meal money,” the policy says.
Employees may remind secondary students that their lunch account is in the negative, the policy says.
Unlike the California law, Davis policy states that any meals a student has received before being approved for free or reduce-price lunch — even if the student was eligible — “are the responsibility of the parent and must be paid for.”
Davis School District’s policy is the only policy of the three that mentions child protective services, advising that “when a student repeatedly comes to school without a meal from home or money to participate in the school meal program, school administrators should consider if circumstances in the home warrant contacting social workers or Child Protective Services.”