Rhode Island

Students are being shamed and punished over lunch debt, and it may take legislation to stop it

orange plastic school lunch tray on white background
Adobe’Globe staff illustration

Four years ago, Stephanie Rosenquist put a $10.80 check in the mail to cover the overdue balance on her son’s school meal payments. She didn’t think twice about it until he came home from his Oxford elementary school upset and hungry. He had ordered a school breakfast, made it to the front of the line, and watched as a cafeteria worker tossed the food into the trash after discovering the negative balance.

Rosenquist was incensed, and her son, she said, was humiliated in front of his classmates.

“There’s punishment and humiliation for a child who has no knowledge — and doesn’t need to have knowledge — of my finances or know that mommy’s behind on a bill. It’s none of his business, and he shouldn’t suffer for it,” Rosenquist said. “Why should my child starve or be embarrassed over 10 dollars and 80 cents? Let’s pretend I owe a thousand dollars. Does my child deserve to starve or be embarrassed?”

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The act of shaming students for being behind on lunch bills attracted national headlines last month after officials in Warwick, R.I., said children who owed money would be served cold sandwiches, not hot meals. But it’s a phenomenon that has been percolating through districts locally and nationally for years.

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According to a 2018 study by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, school officials have employed a range of tactics, including barring students from graduation exercises and hiring collection agencies to recoup costs. In some cases, policies contained provisions that included punishing the siblings of indebted students, too. Twenty-eight districts, mostly secondary schools, had implemented “no charge” meal policies — meaning indebted students can’t charge any meal to their account, calling their ability to eat for the school day into question.

In other districts, like Warwick, kids whose parents fall behind on payments are given cold sandwiches — what some call the scarlet letter of the cafeteria world. Students, critics say, are singled out for something over which they have no control: their family’s finances. Meanwhile, food service employees are left to dole out lunchroom justice.

Rosenquist called her son’s school to complain, but she said her concerns were brushed off.

“I was told: ‘When you go to McDonald’s, do you pay for your food? Why do you think you should get free food at school?’ ”

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Reached for comment, Oxford superintendent Elizabeth Zielinski noted that she wasn’t in the district then and was unaware that such an incident took place. Oxford’s current policy states that at lunch, once a charge limit is reached, a student is offered a cheese sandwich and a drink. Breakfasts may not be charged if there is an outstanding balance.

On her watch, Zielinski said, “We would let the child eat. We haven’t had issues with this.”

Legislation to address the issue is pending in the Massachusetts House and Senate and is slated to be heard as early as July. An Act to Promote Student Nutrition would bar employees from publicly identifying a student with meal debt; denying meals as punishment; serving an “alternative meal” solely to students who lack money or are in debt; disposing of an already served hot meal; or prohibiting a student or sibling from participating in non-fee-based activities, events, or graduation. Districts also would be required to maximize the federal reimbursement that’s available for meals and minimize the debt on families, including more frequent checking of state databases that can qualify students for free-meal status.

“My hope is that people will understand that . . . to provide the best education we can, we need to include feeding these kids,” said Senate sponsor Cynthia Stone Creem, a Newton Democrat.

In the meantime, some employees are taking matters into their own hands.

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“We feed our kids no matter what their bill is,” said Marjorie Nelson, a cafeteria worker at a Fitchburg charter school. She has used her own money to buy lunches for kids, as have her colleagues. They made a “pact,” she said, never to single out a child.

‘They should not have to “police’’ the student’s accounts and be the “judge’’ of the cheese sandwiches.’

Nelson spent years working in Texas schools, where she had to enforce a cheese sandwich policy. The experience haunted her.

“[Kids] cry. And then they’re mad at you. And then they’re embarrassed and ashamed, and then of course, kids are mean,” she said. “So many kids will start to make fun of the child who has no money and shame them. . . . And it’s just horrifying.”

Wendy Timmons feels the same. A staff representative at AFSCME Council 93, a union that comprises school cafeteria workers, she testified at the State House in 2018 in support of the Act to Promote Student Nutrition. Timmons grew up poor in Uxbridge. She understood the stigma that hunger brings.

“I’m an advocate for the cafeteria staff members. They’re forced to follow policies that are demeaning. . . . They should not have to ‘police’ the student’s accounts and be the ‘judge’ of the cheese sandwiches,” she said.

As a cafeteria worker in Northbridge from 2014 to 2017, she was told to hold her hand up in the shape of a “C” when a child came through the line and was identified as over their $11 debt limit. Their hot meal would be discarded; a cheese sandwich — for which the student would still be charged — replaced it.

“I have had students start crying, begging, and walk off without a meal. A lot of the staff, including myself, would pay for meals,” Timmons said in her testimony and in a subsequent interview. “They were very, very embarrassed. They would get into the line and then, you know, we would have to stop the line. They would be sectioned off to one side. I literally would give it back to the server behind the line, and she would just throw it right in the barrel.”

Of course, cafeterias are run like a business. Schools are beholden to budgets, which need to be reconciled by the end of the fiscal year on June 30. Nearly every Massachusetts public school, and most charter schools, participate in the National School Lunch Program, which provides federal funding for balanced meals at no cost or low cost to students.

Thanks to programs such as the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, some high-need districts, including Boston, qualify for universal free meals. Other students in nonqualifying districts can receive free or reduced-cost meals: Schools are required to serve meals at no charge to children whose household income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute senior policy analyst Patricia Baker headed the 2018 study, which examined 154 districts’ unpaid meal policies after hearing from families with meal debt whose children should have automatically qualified for free meals.

She sees common scenarios: Financial catastrophe might happen midway through the year, and either a family is overwhelmed and doesn’t apply for free meal status or doesn’t realize it can apply for meals at any time. Other times, a family simply forgets to put money into a child’s account.

Regardless, she said, the child should never be punished.

“I think the common issue for all of these scenarios is that kids, young kids, teenagers, are incredibly vulnerable. They are not the ones who are making these decisions. They shouldn’t be put in the middle of meal debt, and they shouldn’t be forced to go hungry,” Baker said.

In Woburn, however, students could be barred from graduation activities or charged for cheese sandwiches if in debt — though the printed consequences differed from the reality, said Joseph Elia, assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

“I’m of the opinion that nobody should have to pay for lunch and breakfast. We should come up with a way to fund a certain amount and let us run the programs. Don’t charge these kids. To me, it’s foolish,” he said.

As legislation is pending, some districts are trying to make policies more compassionate.

Woburn has softened aspects of its policy, effective in July. For example, all students will receive a “regular” lunch each day regardless of balances.

Last year, the Medford School Committee crafted a new lunch policy. According to member Paul Ruseau, it states that “no food service person will ever speak to a student about their balance when purchasing a regular meal.” Even indebted students receive a regular meal.

Elsewhere, grass-roots efforts have been established. In Arlington, the nonprofit Arlington EATS works with public schools to reduce lunch debt through charitable donations. In Belmont, concerned parents have set up donation accounts to cover expenses.

“We’re this affluent community, but we still have a significant number of families who struggle,” said Jessie Bennett, a PTA member in Belmont. She recalled an incident in which a parent became incapacitated and failed to fill out a free lunch application. “What gets lost a lot of the time is that whatever’s going on in the home is not the child’s fault when they’re standing there at a register.”

Ultimately, said Baker of the institute, the burden lies with districts.

“I think school districts need to take a hard look at their meal debt practices and not make kids cannon fodder in this battle to manage the school budget. Ideally, I would love to see all schools guarantee access to basic school meals, the same as providing students books, desks, chairs, and supplies they need to learn. That would be the best solution.”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com.