Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee Adopts Debt Policy Designed to Prevent “Lunch-Shaming” (UPDATED)

The Amherst-Pelham and Union 26 Regional School Committees adopted a new policy on overdue school cafeteria balances last night, to prevent children from being punished for debts, and to hold parents or guardians accountable instead.

The policy for public schools in Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury replaces one that was approved in 2015, but not implemented as planned last December.  Under the prior policy, children with running debts would have gotten an “alternate lunch.” A cheese sandwich, along with milk, vegetable and fruit, was the example given in an initial draft. That policy sparked an outcry from parents, who claimed it would stigmatize children whose families were unable to pay, while failing to communicate effectively with parents and guardians about their debts.

Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage, who serves on the School Equity Task Force, thanked the school committees and district officials for heeding feedback from parents and the community.

“This may be the most progressive food policy in the country,” she said. The task force was instrumental in developing the policy unanimously approved last night.

The district’s debt to food service contractors has generally been fairly low, and was previously pegged at about $20,000, accrued over a period of years. The alternate lunch policy would have impacted children paying full and reduced prices, based on the number of unpaid meals on record.

Ronald Mannino, a school committee member from Pelham, expressed his appreciation for the new policy’s “absence of shaming techniques.”

The district was under pressure to adopt an overdue balance policy by a July 1 federal deadline. Questions remained last night, including what the district will do about balances that are unpaid after a student graduates.  However, Eric Nakajima, regional committee chairman, said details will be discussed and the policy may be revisited in the future.

The committees sought to avoid any language threatening to bar a student from graduation because of a cafeteria balance, and a single reference to graduation was removed by amendment. The policy now states that “prior to the end of the school year,” parents and guardians must make arrangements “to fully or partially pay, or waive, outstanding balances.” Audra Goscenski, of Leverett, proposed the new language after a lengthy discussion.

Based on individual circumstances, cafeteria balances owed may be partially or entirely waived at the superintendent’s discretion, according to the policy, although it does not specify what the criteria for waivers would be. The Amherst Regional Public Schools Family Center will be “available upon request” to act as a liaison between parents and the food service department.

The new policy comes amid a growing national debate about how schools should handle overdue cafeteria balances. Alternate lunch policies have led to cafeteria waste and confusion in some districts, with reports of meals being thrown away after a child’s inability to pay was discovered, and lesser meals being substituted.  (This article refers to a Pennsylvania case last fall.

In recent months, there were several national news stories about individuals raising money to pay off  lunch debts for entire districts, to prevent punitive measures involving children. (Here is a May ABC News story about such a payment in Seattle, WA. )

The new policy here will “treat all students equitably and with dignity in the serving line regarding meal accounts,” and “encourage parent/guardians to assume the responsibility of meal payments.”

All children will receive “a regular lunch” daily.  The food service department will email monthly notices to parents and guardians about outstanding balances, and paper notices will be mailed home at least three times a year.  Finance Director Sean Mangano said the district has not taken full advantage of email as a debt notification tool in the past.

A federal program currently provides free lunch for all children in public schools where 40 percent or more qualify for free or reduced lunch. Mangano said the Amherst schools hover at 30 percent or above, and are “near” eligibility.  However, Congress may raise the 40 percent threshold to 60 percent, Mangano said.

This is a 2016 report, from the USDA Food & Nutrition Service, entitled “Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from Our Nation’s Schools”


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