School Lunch Shaming Part III– Solutions!

So far I’ve covered how a child would qualify for a free or reduced price meal, that kids that don’t qualify for either are the kids impacted by meal charge policies and the federal requirements for making such a policy publicly known.  I’ve also shared the  repercussions that can come from making that policy public.

The apocalypse or the aftermath of a school board meeting where meal charge policies were discussed? Hard to tell. Photo credit

On the school meal side, I’ve covered how cash strapped school meal program are and how they rely on the money collected from meals served to kids that don’t qualify for a free or reduced price meal that comes with a more substantial federal reimbursement.  School meal programs just don’t have the budgets that allow for serving meals that aren’t either reimbursed by the federal government or paid for by students who don’t qualify for the federal reimbursement.

We need solutions to this problem brighter than this chalkboard. Photo credit

I also know from my time spent working in school nutrition that nobody wants to take a meal away from a hungry child or deny a kid a meal that needs it.  Which puts school nutrition professionals squarely between a rock and hard place.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to try to get closer to a comfortable middle ground between kids getting fed and school nutrition programs staying afloat:

  1. Wherever possible, explore the possibilities of special provisions. USDA has given school districts lots of flexibility on how they can put a special provision in place and some districts have implemented a special provision across the entire district which allows every kid to eat for no charge.  This decreases the stigma associated with eating a school meal, boosts participation and decreases the administrative burden of processing applications.
  2. Make applying for meal benefits as easy as possible and start early in the school year. Online applications that are simple and intuitive to fill out can be a huge asset.  Consider talking about school meal benefit applications at back to school open housings or enrollment sessions.  Being able to review an application on the spot and get any additional information needed right away can be a help in getting applications approved correctly and quickly.
  3. If a school allows meal charges, be proactive in contacting families who have accrued a negative balance. Accruing a small meal charge is understandable and provides a great opportunity for a school administrator to contact a parent or guardian and find out if there have been any changes at home and if there is any help that can be provided.  People’s lives change, financial circumstances change and all it takes is a caring adult to help connect someone with resources who may be struggling.
  4. I don’t support unlimited meal charging. It puts a tremendous burden on school meal programs that are already under resourced and sets a system up to get taken advantage of.  Some amount of meal charging I think is reasonable, but if there is no limit it just seems to set the school lunch system up to fail. Balances go unchecked and putative actions like sending families to collections will only build animosity between parents and schools.

Ultimately, I would love to see school meals free for all kids, at every school.  It would take away the stigma, it would decrease the administrative burden of taking meal applications and I think if a truly accurate cost analysis was done, it wouldn’t cost more than what we currently spend.  We spend an incredible amount of time collecting meal benefit applications, reviewing meal benefit applications, reporting on meal benefit applications and then auditing meal benefit applications.  But in our current political environment, I just don’t see that coming together.  So in the meantime, I encourage everyone involved to focus on the opportunity this challenge brings to keep working together to do the best we can for kids.


School Lunch Shaming Part II-Meal Charge Policies

Previously, I covered the basics of how kids qualify for a free or reduced price meal and how anyone that doesn’t qualify is considered a “full pay” student, which means they typically have to pay for their meals.  Historically, the price charged for a “full pay” student to eat lunch varied widely and in some schools the price was very low.  This lead to a theory that in some schools the federal reimbursement was in affect subsidizing the low cost of “full pay” meals.  For example, if the federal reimbursement for a meal served to a free or reduced price eligible kid was $3.00 and the “full pay” price was $1.50, the meals served at the higher federal reimbursement rate were subsidizing the meal that the school only collected $1.50 for (plus the small federal reimbursement).  This also applied to the prices charged for adult meals, or meals served to school staff.

Grab and go salads
Yes, this is school lunch from Provo County School District in Provo, Utah. Yes, I think you should eat school lunch, but should also chip in at least $3 for this beautiful salad so the school meal program can stay afloat.  Photo Credit

To put a stop to this, USDA put some requirements in place on what prices could be charged for “full pay” meals and staff meals in an attempt to shore those prices up and ensure the prices charges for “full pay” and staff meals covered what it cost to produce those meals.

In addition to putting a requirement in place that schools charge a minimum amount for “full pay” meals, they also put a requirement in place that school districts had to have what’s called a meal charge policy.  This policy has to cover how they are going to handle things like whether “full pay” kids would be allowed to charge meals if they don’t have the money to pay for a meal, up to what amount could be charged and if they planned to give kids an alternative meal, which is when a child that doesn’t have money gets a different meal than what’s regularly offered.  This is often something like a cheese sandwich or a milk and graham crackers, typically something that is low cost since schools don’t typically get to recoup these costs.

USDA put out guidance on this requirement and has a whole webpage dedicated to how to handle this thorny issue. It includes frequently ask questions and a manual with regulatory guidance and suggestions on how to handle specific issues.

This requirement has forced school districts to face this challenging issue and make public how they intend to handle tough questions on what limits to put on meal debts that can grow exponentially.

The rock in the middle in exactly where school meal programs are at with meal charge policies.  Photo credit

Since USDA requires a policy to be established and readily communicated, that forced many school districts to take the meal charge policy to the school board for approval.  In some cases, that meant bringing a policy forward that reflects practices that have been in place for years.  And as with many school board policies, some school districts received a huge amount of public outcry over the proposed meal charge policy, even when it reflected practices that have been in place for years.

In my home district of Washoe County, Nevada bringing the meal charge policy to the school board resulted in a huge public outcry and ultimately a change to the policy from what was initially proposed.  Historically, there was a limit to how much a “full pay” elementary school student could charge, but after the public outcry the school board approved a revised policy that allowed unlimited meal charges for elementary school students.  The result? Over $84,000 in unpaid meal charges only halfway through the school year, in a school district that already has a $22 million dollar deficit.   The school district’s Chief Operations Officer, Pete Etchart, captures this situation very succinctly as quoted in a newspaper article covering this issue:

“I don’t think, personally, there’s really a great answer here,” Etchart said

I actually couldn’t have said it better myself.

But, we do have to press on and examine some potential solutions more closely.  Next up, part III in the School Lunch Shaming series where we will examine some potential solutions and opportunities to make sure every kid has the opportunity to be well nourished and ready to learn.

School Lunch Shaming–Part I

“Do we do lunch shaming here?” I was recently asked by a fellow MBA student.

The first things that really struck me about being asked this questions was how pervasive this issue has been.  Unless people have kids, work in school nutrition or work in some other school related capacity they are typically very unfamiliar with school lunch hot topics.  It’s not popular cocktail party conversation, that’s for sure! But lunch shaming is such a tricky issue and certainly an emotional one. Nobody wants to see kids not get fed and I don’t know of a single school food professional who wants any kid to feel shameful about food.  As school nutrition professionals were here to feed kids and hopefully be a bright spot in their day, especially for kids who are having a tough time at home.

Smiles on faces
I’m certain this person puts a smile on a kids face every day.  Photo Credit

On the other side of the issue, uncollected meal debts really put a hardship on school nutrition programs that are already struggling to keep their budget out of the red. Meals that are served to kids that don’t qualify for a free or reduced price meal only come with a $0.31 reimbursement from the federal government and schools rely on the money paid by students to make up the difference on the cost of the meal.

There are many layers to the “lunch shaming” issue, and it’s also an issue that often gets entangled in splashy headlines with key facts left behind.  It’s such a big issue I’ve split it up into three blog post.  First, to start with the facts on the process for figuring out which kids qualify for a free meal or not:

  1. In every school that participates in the National School Lunch Program (unless they participate in a special option, which I’ll cover below) household income information is collected on a meal application and that information is used to determine if a child qualifies for a free or reduced priced meal.
  2. For a student to qualify for a free meal their household income has to fall below a certain threshold. Currently, that annual income limit is $31,980 for a  family of four.  For each lunch that is served to a student that qualifies for a free meal, the school district receives the highest per meal reimbursement rate of about $3.29. The student cannot be charged for their meal.
  3. For a student to qualify for a reduced price meal, their household income income has to fall below a certain threshold that is slightly higher than the threshold for a free meal benefit.  For the 2017-2018 school year this threshold is $45,510 for a family of four.  Meals served to kids that qualify for a reduced price meal cannot be charged more than $0.40.  Some districts, like the school district where I live, absorb this cost and serve meals to kids that qualify for a reduced price meal at no charge.  Some may argue this is a lost revenue stream but when you look at the income level for a family of four that would qualify for a reduced price meal you can see that these are families that are commonly referred to as the “working poor”, they have jobs, sometimes more than one job but that job only provides a low wage. For example, if there are two adults working full time at a minimum wage job that totals up to $34,320.  Even if both adults worked full time and made $10 per hour that only adds up to $41,600.  Being able to have your children get a lunch for free can be a huge boost to families that are struggling with basics like child care,  housing and utilities.
  4. If a households income is above the limits for a reduced price meal, the student is what is typically referred to as “full pay” and the school district sets the price that is charged for these meals. It varies by grade level and state but most prices hover around $2.50.  Meals served to these students also come with a small federal reimbursement as mentioned above, of about $0.31 per meal.
  5. When we talk about “lunch shaming”, we are referring to how the situation is handled when a child who is “full pay”, ie doesn’t qualify for a free or reduced price lunch, doesn’t have money to pay for a meal.

For schools in high poverty areas where most or all students qualify for a free or reduced price meal you can imagine the burden of processing an application for each and every kids in the first two weeks of school when most meal benefit applications come in.  And to ease that burden, USDA has come up with a few options,  call Special Provisions.    These are options that school district can exercise to reduce the burden of processing all those meal benefit applications without compromising the integrity of the National School Lunch Program.

Imagine wading through stacks of paperwork AND still having the time to make amazing meals like these!  Photo Credit: Douglas County School District Nutrition Services

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is the new kid on the block of Special Provisions, so to speak.  Schools where more than 40% of students are participating in SNAP (food stamps) or other assistance programs can utilize CEP and once they’ve opted to do so, they don’t take any meal benefit applications.  In fact, they are strictly prohibited from doing so.  They must also do the following:

  1. Feed all kids breakfast and lunch at no charge to the students
  2. Count the number of meals served

Sounds pretty simple right?  And not only does it reduce the burden of processing all those meal benefit applications it reduces the stigma of who qualifies for free lunch since all kids eat for free.  School utilizing CEP have reported dramatic increases in meal participation and a lower administrative cost since they only have to count the number of meals served and don’t have to tally up meals served by student and what type of meal benefit they qualify for.

The other commonly used Special Provision is called Provision II.  When utilizing this option schools collect meal applications during a “base year”.  During the base year they establish what percentage of meals served are served to kids that qualify for each meal benefit type (free, reduced and paid).  They can then apply that percentage of free, reduced and paid meals to the number of meals served to determine their reimbursement in place of having to count each meal served by meal benefit type.  They use the percentage for the next three years and during those three years they don’t have to take any meal benefit applications.  They have to feed all kids for free, but can opt to do lunch only, breakfast only or lunch and breakfast.  It reduces administrative burden since they don’t collect meal applications after the first year and can also have similar increases in meal participation since there is no charge to students.

Now that we’ve got the basics down of what students are charged for meals and how that process works I’ll cover meal charge policies and what impact they have had in part II and follow up with a part III on school socioeconomic data and what options there are to get a solution in place that is a winner for all.  Stay tuned!