Is getting tough on delinquent lunch debts within our public schools being too tough? Is it promoting the practice of shaming students whose families have difficulty paying? Should school lunches even cost money at all – as many leading school systems elsewhere in the world, such as Nordic countries, provide free, nutritious meals to all students, regardless of income.
To answer the first two questions, no, we don’t believe that schools should be crucified for cracking down on chronically delinquent families who send their kids to school without a means to pay for lunch. There’s a couple of reasons why.
Most pertinently, a student will feasibly only rack up significant lunch debt within a public school if his or her family is unable to pay the lunch fee multiple times throughout the school year. While this is certainly a very sad reality for some families in cities and towns across the state and the country, that situation would also more than likely mean the family is eligible to sign up for the free or reduced lunch program in the state.
If a family truly has the inability to pay small lunch fees which, at about $3 a lunch for an average of 20 school days per month, would equate to $60 a month, then they are truly in dire financial straits and would almost certainly qualify for this program. To not inquire about this if you need the help is simply irresponsible, as nobody outside of the family will ever be alerted they are on it.
School systems have taken heat for “shaming” students by offering a cheap lunch alternative for students who have demonstrated an inability to pay for delinquent lunch debts. Historically, a crude cheese sandwich was an indicator that a student’s family was in poor financial shape, which could lead to teasing and other truly harmful experiences.
However, the policies explored today take this potential side effect into account. The policy that is being considered by Warwick currently – and was previously in place – gives parents two written and telephones alerts that their student is accruing debt. If they don’t make contact with the school after those contacts, and the child racks up more debt, then the student is limited to a SunButter and jelly sandwich. However, this restricted alternative is not akin to the cheese sandwich because it is a regular menu item, and won’t automatically out a student as being indebted.
However, perhaps the biggest reason that we support enabling districts to enact policies that hold delinquent parents accountable for accruing high levels of lunch debt is because it is overtly obvious that having no such policy enables the biggest offenders to pile up huge levels of debt that can actually have a financial impact on an entire district.
We have all seen the issue rear its head in Cranston, where just in one third of the school year they are approaching nearly $50,000 in unpaid school debt. In Warwick, after abolishing the SunButter and jelly policy for the 2016/17 school year, they saw their own lunch debt levels rise 500 percent from around $9,000 to $45,000 between June of 2017 and June of 2018.
Some may try to interpret these policies as shaming. We do not agree with the terminology, but clearly, some parents need a little push in order to take the situation more seriously. Especially in Warwick, where school committee meetings are marred by arguments over spending a fraction of that debt amount on every different contract award imaginable, this level of debt cannot be ignored to spare a few peoples’ fragile feelings.
And to answer the final question – regarding whether or not school lunches should be totally free, like many other first-world, educational front running countries do across the world – yes, we believe this problem shouldn’t even be a problem in the first place.
However, as funding issues within our state’s public schools seem to get worse year by year – to a point where not even a billion dollars of public bond money will get our schools on par with other states in the country – we can safely shelf that unreasonably starry-eyed aspiration for another time. Such problems will only be resolved when we redefine what is truly important and deserving of funding.