School lunches—and the policies that shame the kids of parents who have lunch debt—are in the news again. A school in New Jersey is reportedly now banning students from extra-curricular activities, such as dances and field trips, if their parents owe more than $US75 ($110). It’s a terrible policy that replaces its previous terrible policy.
CBS in Philadelphia reports:
The old policy stated that students in the district who owed more than $US10 ($15) would only be allowed tuna sandwich meals. Students didn’t receive any food if they owed $US20 ($29) or more.
The new policy would also keep students who don’t pay after repeated requests from extracurricular events.
Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced a bill this month that would help provide three free meals and a snack to all U.S. school children. But while we wait on the fate of that bill, parents should be aware of the policies around lunch debt within their own schools.
If you’re not sure how lunch debt is handled at your child’s school, now is the time to find out—especially if you’re a parent who can afford to pay the bill and wants to be an ally to those who might be struggling. You can use this latest news as an excuse to forward the article to your principal and say it’s a topic that’s been on your mind and you’d like to know how it’s handled at your school. (If you don’t receive a response, contact the superintendent’s office next.)
If your school does anything that singles out the children of parents with lunch debt, it’s time to get involved for the sake of your kid’s peers, who are not responsible for this bill or deserving of any shame related to it. If your school has a PTA or PTO, consider contacting the group’s president to call a parent meeting on the issue to get input from other parents about the policy and ways to support the parents who are in debt. Then, as a group or individually, you can meet with school or district administrators to discuss your concerns and suggestions.
Ultimately, if there is an inappropriate policy in place and no willingness among administrators to champion a change, you’ll need to take your concerns directly to the school board, which approves such policies.
Juliana Cohen, an adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard University, tells Popular Science that facing stigma around school lunches can negatively impact kids’ mental health and stress levels.
That’s seen with kids who feel labelled by receiving school lunch, for example. “When we remove that stigma, it makes a big difference in kids’ lives.” Some schools do so by giving all students cafeteria swipe cards so that it’s not apparent who is or is not paying for the meal. On the whole, Cohen says schools are getting better at free meals, but not lunch debt. “When you give a kid a cheese sandwich, you’re bringing that stigma back.”
Hopefully you’ll find that your school doesn’t serve exclusively cheese or tuna sandwiches to the kids of parents with lunch debt or ban them from the next fun extracurricular activity. But if you do, you can—and should—get involved.
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