It happened to Gina Catalano’s daughter twice. The Bristol/Warren School District refused the third grader a hot lunch and instead served her a cheese sandwich. Catalano – who is single, raises two kids and works 40 to 45 hours a week – forgot to pay the bill and was about $5 in arrears.
“We do not allow students to incur debt beyond the cost of two lunches,” said Pauline Silva, director of administration and finance for the school district. “Our protocol is that on the third day of no funds in the account, they are given a alternate meal which generally gets the attention of the parents to bring their account up to date. No child is ever refused a lunch or breakfast. It works well here in Bristol Warren.”
Catalano disagrees. “I think the same lunch should be provided for all children,” she said. “She shouldn’t be treated any differently because her mom forgot to pay.”
It’s known as lunch shaming. Students are subjected to special, sometimes embarrassing, treatment because their parents didn’t pay the school lunch bill. “Some provide kids an alternative lunch, like a cold cheese sandwich,” according to a recent NPR story. “Other schools sometimes will provide hot lunch, but require students do chores, have their hand stamped or wear a wristband showing they’re behind in payment. And, some schools will deny students lunch all together.”
The so-called cheese sandwich policy seems popular in suburban Rhode Island: Bristol/Warren, South Kingstown, and East Greenwich all use it.
The East Greenwich School Committee approved a policy in 2011. It says, “Once a student has charged a total of three (3) lunches and no payment has been received, that student will receive a lunch consisting of a cheese sandwich, fruit, and milk in place of a hot lunch. This meal maintains the USDA standards surrounding reimbursable meals and will be charged at full price to the student’s account; students should not go through the normal lunch line if they are not eligible to charge any more lunches.”
Both Bristol/Warren and South Kingstown school committees are considering implementing similar policies that would match their established practices.
In South Kingstown, the proposal was not very popular with the school committee, said Chairwoman Alycia Collins. It was heard for the first time on April 11, and goes even farther than East Greenwich’s, stipulating that a lunch will be “discarded” if a student with a negative balance tries to purchase it.
“Members spoke specifically about the topic of lunch shaming,” Collins said. “All SC members shared serious concerns about aspects of the policy and will be making several changes to it before it’s second reading and adoption next month.”
South Kingstown’s draft language closely mirrors East Greenwich’s existing policy: “Once a student has a negative balance of $10.00, the student will receive an alternate meal consisting of a cheese sandwich, fruit, vegetable and milk,” it reads. “This meal complies with USDA/RIDE standards for reimbursable meals.” Maryanne Crawford, the schools finance director, worked on both, she said. She had the same job for the East Greenwich schools in 2011. She said the debt South Kingstown carries as a result of unpaid lunches is minimal.
The Bristol/Warren School Committee will consider adopting its own policy for the first time Monday night. This proposal suggests cold cuts, rather than a cheese sandwich, would be provided as an alternative. “Students with a balance due lasting more than one week will be provided a USDA nutritionally complete menu alternate meal until debt is paid or arrangements to pay the debt have been made,” the draft policy reads. “Sample menu alternate lunch: Ham or turkey sandwich with fruit and vegetable of the day and milk.”
Like Collins in South Kingstown, Bristol/Warren School Committee Member Adam Ramos wants to see significant changes before it is approved.
“I do not think a policy that punishes the child by taking away the full slate of lunch options is the right way to go,” he said. “It’s not right to punish the children, they had no part in causing it, and it’s not worth the potential physical and psychological harm that could be caused by providing an alternative lunch.”
He added, “My view is that what is most important when it comes to school meals is that we make sure students get the nutrition and sustenance they need so they can best learn what they are in their classes to learn. I will be suggesting something different.”
Portsmouth recently did something different. Chairwoman Terri Cortvient said the School Committee recently passed a new policy that ensures every student gets the same lunch options regardless of payment.
“The intent is that we don’t want to embarrass anybody,” she said. “The students will get the same lunch options regardless. We will ask the parents for the money and if we don’t get it we will write it off as bad debt.”
Cortvient said prior practice had been to give students a cold sandwich “but the principals were concerned that it stigmatized kids.”
All school districts in the nation must have a policy in place for dealing with lunch debt by July 1 as part of the Obama Administration’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. It’s unclear how many Rhode Island districts have policies or are working to adopt them. “Since this is a new requirement, RIDE has not collected policies from all districts, and we don’t collect data on delinquencies in the district,” said state Department of Education spokeswoman Megan Geoghegan.
In a February email to local school districts, RIDE did recommend against the cheese sandwich policy.
“Alternate meals may not be the best option when dealing with unpaid meal balances as they put an unfair burden on the student and often overtly identify ‘full pay’ students,” wrote RIDE’s Child Nutrition Program specialist Jessica Patrolia. “Districts should seek input from all involved stakeholders (parents, principals, cafeteria staff, etc.) to ensure that all viable options have been explored when crafting or revising a policy. This will result in additional ‘buy-in’ for the implementation of the agreed upon process and will ensure that a diversity of experiences and opinions are taken into account when crafting a policy for handling unpaid meals.”
Other states are taking a more hands-on approach to lunch shaming. Last week New Mexico passed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights. California and Texas are considering similar bills that would outlaw lunch shaming.