Texas school districts grapple with lunch debt

When a child in a public school needs lunch in the cafeteria but does not have the funds to pay for it, the burden of lunch debt often falls on the student.

National news and public reaction can follow overzealous school administrators who take it upon themselves to punish children for lack of funds. This is usually because an account balance with SchoolCafe – or another service that allows parents to pay for children’s meals or track their eating habits – is insufficient.

A recently publicized case involving elementary school student Jefferson Sharpnack at Green Elementary School in northeast Ohio. Last September, on a day that happened to be his birthday, the staff took away his lunch of cheese breadsticks while he was dining with friends.

Stories like these are not rare and are generally seen as an unnecessarily cruel reminder of how American public institutions value money over people.

The good news is that deb lunchThis is becoming a thing of the past in Texas schools. Many of the larger districts have eliminated it altogether or changed the concept to reduce the impact on children.

For example, in Northside ISD, the system allows a child up to five meal charges once the account goes negative. Parents receive letters and phone calls telling them they have a negative balance and urging them to pay it back, but no action is taken against the child.

If a child exceeds the five loads, the student can still eat what is called a courtesy meal, which is usually a ham or turkey sandwich, a choice of vegetables, and milk. These are provided free of charge without limit.

“We don’t take a tray away from a student,” says director of nutrition Thomas Wherry. “If they make their way past their five charges, we’ll let them charge. This is not a problem.”

Wherry also says cafeteria managers are more than willing to work with parents who are struggling to keep their accounts in the dark so their kids can keep eating.

Other school districts simply decided that all meals would be free for students. Houston ISDthe states larger district, announced this year that all students will have free meals. It comes at the request of the USDA’s Community Eligibility Program, which allows districts with the poorest schools in the nation to receive funding to cover all meals without students having to enroll in a meal program. free or at a reduced price.

Nutrition services manager Betti Wiggins said in a press release earlier this year that the new policy will ease financial burdens on parents and reduce the number of shameful meals many children experience when seen with meals separated from their peers.

Dallas ISD is another school district in Texas that offers completely free school lunches.

“The program we’ve had in place for almost five years now is that we don’t charge for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes even supper,” says news and information director Robin Harris. “We have no lunch debt.”

Dealing with lunch debt has been a hit and miss issue, many have begun to think it should be dealt with by national politics. It is estimated that more than 13 million children in America come from food-insecure households and receive only regular, nutritious meals at school. Some 22 million children nationwide rely on the USDA’s Free and Discounted Lunch Program to eat.

Since children are required by law to attend public school unless otherwise enrolled in an equivalent education, some believe the government has a moral obligation to feed students. While many kids bring their own lunch rather than eating cafeteria food, the millions of food insecure kids say the issue is bigger than telling parents to buy a loaf of bread.

The shame aspect must also be addressed. The case of Jefferson Sharpnack and others like him is extreme, but many schools engage in behavior that targets children who, through no fault of their own, cannot afford to eat that day.

Cy Fair ISD previously sent primary school children home with giant red stickers declaring their negative balances affixed to their clothes. These students had to wear the stickers all day until their parents picked them up. The practice was discontinued several years ago, replaced by an automated phone call to parents when their count is negative.

Fortunately, the largest school districts in Texas have taken the lunch debt problem seriously. However, there is still much to do. Austin ISD, for example, still had a lunch debt problem from last school year.

A ten-year-old boy, Ben Hofer, started a crowdfunding campaign to clear the district’s lunch debt which raised $10,000. While this story speaks to young Hofer’s community spirit, the idea that something as systemic as a big city’s school lunch program should be solved by private crowdfunding is horrifying. Hopefully Texas will continue to move in the right direction.

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