When the final bell rang in Weatherly Area School District in June, administrators calculated more than $4,000 of debt from unpaid school lunches.
It’s a relatively small sum in a multi-million dollar district budget. But according to business manager Peter Bard, it’s enough to put a burden on local taxpayers in the Carbon County school district, who are on the hook for any outstanding lunch bills.
The debt load has also doubled in the past two years, Bard said, ever since Pennsylvania outlawed “lunch shaming” — the practice of denying lunch or providing a low-cost meal to a student with unpaid lunch bills.
School administrators say the well-intentioned policy change in the state’s sprawling school code has allowed lunch debt to skyrocket.
“We’ve seen an exponential increase,” Bard said. “We’re not in the business of taking people to the debt collector… but the amount we’re looking to collect has gone up significantly since [the Legislature] passed that law.”
Pennsylvania’s school code is amended every year during the annual debate over the state budget. In 2017, lawmakers removed a provision that allowed schools to offer “alternative meals” to children with $25 or more in unpaid lunch bills.
The law garnered national attention in 2016, after a cafeteria worker in Washington County quit to protest her school’s policy of denying hot meals to indebted students. She said that offering the children cold sandwiches instead of a hot lunch was “sinful and shameful.”
This year, though, the Legislature brought a version of the law back through the school code. If a child owes more than $50 in lunch fees, schools can now serve them alternative meals until the balance is paid or until their parents agree to a repayment plan.
Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, said lawmakers decided to bring back the alternative meal provision after hearing that school districts had racked up thousands of dollars in unpaid lunch bills.
A recent report by LancasterOnline, Cutler’s hometown newspaper, found that some districts accumulated more than $15,000 in lunch debt this year.
“Districts weren’t facing these debt loads previously,” Straub told the Capital-Star last week. “[Providing] alternative lunch makes sure families know these debts need to be paid.”
School administrators say the new law provides a crucial mechanism for them to recoup unpaid lunch money. But critics say students shouldn’t be penalized because their parents are unable to pay.
“Lunch shaming punishes and stigmatizes children and often leads to bullying,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, which opposes the new requirement. “There are other ways to address the issue of significant school debt instead of punishing children.”
In Pennsylvania, students whose families meet federal income guidelines can receive free or discounted lunches. McInerney said many families don’t know they can apply for that program at any point in the school year, and districts can minimize debt if they help families enroll.
But Matthew Lentz, business manager at Upper Moreland School District in Montgomery County, said that approach doesn’t always work.
Even though Upper Moreland offers a free and reduced lunch application to families with unpaid lunch bills, the district still ended the school year with almost $3,000 in lunch debt.
Most of that debt is held by a small number of families, Lentz said. One student in the district accumulated an unpaid balance of more than $440 — the equivalent of eating a free lunch almost every day of the school year.
“I think word got out you can get lunch without paying,” Lentz said. “We give every opportunity to apply for free and reduced lunch and every opportunity to families who are backed up to get on a payment plan.”
According to Lentz, a $3,000 loss is enough to significantly strain the district’s independently operated food service program. If it happens year after year, the debt could jeopardize food quality or lead to staffing reductions, he said.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, who sponsored the bill to ban “lunch shaming” in 2017, said he was disappointed to learn that the policy was reinstated. But because the law still requires schools to notify parents of unpaid bills, he said, “the school district still bears the responsibility of making sure students are not incurring large debts.”
“I don’t believe that children should be treated differently at school or denied a warm meal because their parents have fallen behind on payments,” Costa said in a statement Wednesday. “I’ll be checking in with my local school districts as this new policy rolls out to see how the implementation is affecting students.”