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BALTIMORE, October 10, 2019 — School meal debt is a longstanding problem for families and schools in Maryland and across the country, but there are ways to reduce it and protect students from negative practices, according to a report released today by Maryland Hunger Solutions. School Meal Charge Policies in Maryland: Best Practices for Preventing School Meal Debt examines school meal debt policies in 21 of Maryland’s 24 school districts for school year 2018–2019, and recommends best practices for responding to and preventing school meal debt while protecting children from humiliation and embarrassment in their schools.
“No student should learn what hunger feels like at school, and no student should be embarrassed or penalized,” said Michael J. Wilson, director, Maryland Hunger Solutions. “By implementing effective and fair policies around school meal debt, school districts in Maryland can ensure that the cafeteria is a positive and supportive environment for all students.”
The three school districts not included in this report are Baltimore City, Dorchester County, and Somerset County. These districts have implemented community eligibility districtwide to provide school breakfast and lunch at no charge to all of their students, effectively eliminating school meal debt and the need for a meal charge policy.
Best practices highlighted in the report include
- ensuring all eligible students are certified for free or reduced-price meals by strengthening the direct certification process and providing free school meals application assistance;
- preventing the accumulation of debt by providing meals at no cost to all students when possible, particularly for schools that are eligible for community eligibility but are not currently using it;
- directing all communications about school meal debt to parents and guardians instead of students; and
- ending harmful practices that shame, stigmatize, or otherwise punish students for a lack of money.
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture required school districts to establish a policy for unpaid school meal charges in 2017, it also allowed states to develop statewide policies. Maryland has not yet developed a statewide policy, although a number of states have done so, including Arizona, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia.
There are also efforts at the federal level to put an end to embarrassing practices and to reduce school meal debt. The recently introduced No Shame at School Act would ban any kind of identification of students who cannot pay for lunch at school, like wristbands or hand stamps, and would not allow schools to use debt collectors to recoup meal fees. It also would provide schools retroactive school meal reimbursement for students who accrued meal debt but then were certified for free or reduced-price school meals later in the school year.
In the 2018–2019 school year, schools across Maryland served more than 240,000 breakfasts and 405,000 lunches, on average, to students every school day.
“School meals are a key component of student success both in and out of the classroom. We need strong policies in place to address the challenges of school meal debt and the associated stigma,” said Julia Gross, anti-hunger program associate, Maryland Hunger Solutions. “Subjecting students to embarrassment because of a lack of funds to pay for school lunch is always unacceptable.”
Maryland Hunger Solutions, an initiative of the Food Research & Action Center, works to end hunger and improve the nutrition, health, and well-being of children and families in Maryland.