Unpaid School Lunch Fees: The Tip of the Iceberg

‘Lunch Shaming’ a rampant, ridiculous response to a much greater problem

The problem goes far beyond families stiffing their schools for a free lunch.

A recent spate of stories about unpaid lunch scofflaws, and school districts’ draconian measures to scare these noncompliant families into pay up has made national news. Prioritizing family spending to include lunch money, well, seems to be a relatively simple problem to fix. But it’s not.

If the well-educated and well-intentioned school officials and school boards would take a step back, they might see that uncollected lunch money is the least of their district’s and their community’s problem. Abject poverty and widespread homelessness are the bigger indicators, but those issues seem to be ignored.

Instead, school districts have introduced a flurry of consequences to discourage unpaid lunch fees:

First Focus, a national bipartisan child advocacy organization, challenged this trending matter by raising a systemic concern.

But lunch debt — and the shaming that results — is a systemic problem, and ad hoc acts of charity are not enough to fix it. Instead, we should be asking deeper questions: why does unpaid school lunch debt exist in the first place, and how can make healthy food available to every student?

Poverty and homelessness go hand in hand.

Trouble is, most believe the word “homeless” applies to the bedraggled adults seen wandering streets of big cities across America. Nothing could be further from the truth, but it’s a truth that even departments of the federal government choose to ignore. In fact, millions more kids, from newborn to Generation Z, experience homelessness than the stereotypical adult.

The denial of extensive homelessness is epidemic and systemic.

HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency overseeing most of our nation’s homeless services, tries to eliminate homelessness by defining it out of existence. Their standards for “qualifying” to be homeless eliminate the bulk of families, youth on their own, and adults. This isn’t a recent phenomenon.

In 2007, Congress heard testimony to urge a definition alignment that would sync HUD’s standard with the US Department of Education’s definition of homelessness. Each year since then, the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act has been introduced, and summarily ignored. Since then, the number of students identified in our nation’s elementary and high schools has soared, doubling, to the astonishing number of 1.3 million last year.

Keep in mind that the schools’ homeless census is extremely under-counted. Students/families understandably don’t like to self-identify. Bullying, involvement of child welfare authorities, shame are among reasons for their reticence. Some don’t realize they “qualify” under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act. Some schools don’t pick up on what, to some of us, are telltale signs of housing instability: poor hygiene (no money to wash clothes), irregular attendance, hunger, reluctance to discuss housing, lack of documents for registration, etc.

HUD requires that communities conduct a biennial “Point in Time” (PIT) count, with strict guidelines for their census, usually conducted at the end of January using volunteers, agency staff and law enforcement. The latest tally, 553,000, was reported to Congress in HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR). Funding and policy decisions rest on the results of AHAR.

The National Law Center on Poverty and Homelessness offered an extensive critique on HUD’s PIT count in the report, Don’t Count On It: How the HUD Point-In-Time Count Underestimates the Homelessness Crisis in America. One NLCPH observation,

However, the much larger ED totals compared to the HUD PIT counts illustrate the impact that counting methods and classifications have on the resulting counts.

Back to schools.

Schools provide free lunches to students whose household income is poverty level. They track those numbers. In New Jersey, an estimated 450,000 students receive free lunch, representing the most impoverished students. For the entire state, they reported 12,000 students experiencing homelessness.

A simple calculation could shine a light on how many families in each district might be experiencing dire financial problems — the kind that often leads to homelessness.

Take a mere 10% of those on free lunch and compare that number to how many students they’ve identified as homeless.

This conservative calculation would indicate the accuracy of their homeless count. New Jersey misses an estimated 33,000 students experiencing homelessness in their count.

Why is this important?

Students experiencing homelessness, and extreme poverty, struggle to succeed in school. They often lack adequate clean clothing. They don’t get sufficient sleep. They may be hungry. They may have physical and mental health issues that prevent them from being successful in school. When they’re identified as homeless, they qualify for a wide range of support to help them succeed.

Poverty, the extreme version, throws households into chaos. Utilities get shut off. Medication gets skipped. Meals lack quality and quantity. Laundry piles up. School attendance suffers. Mail gets lost. Parents struggle to earn enough to maintain housing, usually substandard.

Hunger. Who performs well when hungry? Ask teachers, or students. It’s a problem, one that has a solution. Food.

But poor kids learn that there’s no free lunch.

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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