Essential Homework for School Officials

THINK before finalizing policies on delinquent school lunch fees!

Every bite of nutritious food feeds learners. Photo Diane Nilan

As Cherry Hill, NJ school officials ponder the dilemma of what to do about families who owe for those yummy school lunches, they’ve discussed areas of concerns and possible steps, according to the Sept. 11 Philadelphia Inquirer article by Melanie Burney. Among their bright ideas — a mandatory meeting with parents.

That’s an improvement over tuna sandwiches, threatening to turn them over to debt collectors or calling in child welfare authorities. An in-person session could be good, or bad. For those of us with negative school experiences etched in our memories, this could be frightening. Is that the purpose? Scare them into never falling into arrears again? May I suggest…

A kind, astute school official could privately, respectfully, but firmly, inquire as to the family’s current situation. Are they experiencing financial hardships? Is their housing secure? Or are they, like millions of others, experiencing housing insecurity, possibly homelessness?

If the in-person session happens, and you discover the student (and their family) is homeless, be prepared! This revelation will likely bring several possible reactions from the parents: shame, fear, trauma. And it would be helpful, and the decent thing to do, to assure them that your homeless liaison will meet with them to line up the support they are qualify for. Here are suggestions on what districts can and must do for students experiencing homelessness.

Before Deciding on Punitive…

Unfortunately, punitive seems to be the theme. The PI article stated that…

“the proposed changes include a provision that would prohibit students with overdue meal fees from participating in activities such as graduation ceremonies, school parties, and prom. Students would be allowed to participate in field trips and educational activities, she said. Students would not be barred from athletics/extracurriculars if their lunch accounts are in arrears…”

Again, kids should not bear the consequences. What will be accomplished by keeping kids from activities, especially from graduation ceremonies? If a kid makes it to graduation, let them walk! The lunch money issue is hardly worth the risk of being known as the school that traumatized a student, especially one who made it to graduation.

Cherry Hill School District priorities? Photo Diane Nilan

Good Question: Are Schools Bullying?

One parent I know with plenty of firsthand experience with poverty issues pointed out the gross discrepancies between the Cherry Hill lunch scofflaw penalties and the district’s bullying policies:

The Board of Education prohibits acts of harassment, intimidation, or bullying of a student. A safe and civil environment in school is necessary for students to learn and achieve high academic standards. Harassment, intimidation, or bullying, like other disruptive or violent behaviors, is conduct that disrupts both a student’s ability to learn and a school’s ability to educate its students in a safe and disciplined environment. Harassment, intimidation, or bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that may involve a real or perceived power imbalance. Since students learn by example, school administrators, faculty, staff and volunteers should be commended for demonstrating appropriate behavior, treating others with civility and respect, and refusing to tolerate harassment, intimidation, or bullying.

Anyone who’s experienced or witnessed a child when their lunch tray gets snatched by a righteous cafeteria worker because of unpaid lunch fees would agree that this falls under the category of harassment, intimidation, bullying.

A competitor for “worst-case” bullying might be Alabama’s Gardendale Elementary, where students “had the rudest possible introduction to this phenomenon back in 2016, when the school took to marking the arms of students unable to pay for lunch with a stamp that read, ‘I need lunch money.’

Hearty meal, at a soup kitchen. Photo Diane Nilan

Missing the Big Picture?

I can’t help but hammer on the obvious (to me, anyhow).

More families than we’d like to admit experience financial duress, turmoil within the household, violence within the home and neighborhood, housing insecurity, abject poverty and countless other hardships, including homelessness.

Students deemed homeless, which “includes children and youth who are: sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; living in shelters, transitional housing, or cars; and staying in motels or campgrounds due to lack of adequate alternative accommodations.are automatically eligible for free lunch.

From our recent visit to the Cherry Hill food pantry, where income-eligible families turn for food assistance, every adult waiting in line shared that they have school-age kids staying in their households and they experience food insecurity, among other challenges, including homelessness. Turns out that these were all low-income grandparents, some taking sole care of their grandkids, some absorbed the parents and kids into their household.

None of these adults had heard anything about their grandchildren qualifying for food or other assistance at school. None of these grandparents considered this homelessness, but as we explained further, they nodded their heads, understanding that this qualification can help their beleaguered household make ends meet, or at least put food on the table. From this brief encounter, it appeared that at least 4 students would qualify as homeless. But their grandparents just accepted their burden and soldiered on.

Solutions — Short and Long Term:

  • Have a private, respectful discussion with the head of household. This issue brief contains dos/don’ts for determining McKinney-Vento eligibility. Denver schools began “stepping up efforts to get every family to fill out the free- and reduced-price meal application for next year — an extra challenge in the current political climate in which some immigrant families fear leaving a paper trail.” Their use of robocalls seems unenlightened.
  • Ensure the student can fully participate in extracurricular activities. This brief contains guidance on ways to eliminate barriers. Cutting off students from school activities will do little more than create animosity and disengage them, not a helpful tactic.
  • Communicate with your lawmakers about this issue of unpaid lunch fees. They may not realize the extent of this issue as they vote on “proposed changes to SNAP that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would result in the loss of benefits to about 3.1 million people. In addition, with these new standards, more than 500,000 children would lose access to the automatic enrollment in free school meals.” (TeenVogue, 8/21/19)
  • Take and enforce a strong, clear position on school lunches, as did Superintendent Jeff Miller at Green Local Schools in Green, OH. “All students enrolled in PreK through twelfth grades will receive the standard lunch for the day at their respective buildings regardless of account balance.” This, after a 9-year-old birthday boy got lunch-shamed.
  • Conduct extensive outreach about services available for families experiencing homelessness. Oregon school districts have a reputation for exemplary outreach and services to students experiencing homelessness. My 13-minute video of their efforts could fire up outreach efforts throughout the country.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of a shy 8-year-old whose family is undergoing hard times.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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