Colpitts: Parents must step up to the school lunch plate

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LUNCHTIME — Students at the Rowe Elementary School line up Tuesday with their lunch trays in the school cafeteria for a free hot meal.

PARIS — School Superintendent Rick Colpitts believes, and the Oxford Hills School District Meal Charge Policy supports, that all students should be fed regardless of whether they have the money to pay for the meal or not.

But school officials say parents need to step up to the plate and make sure their child has the money to pay for lunch.

While more than 50 percent of all students in the Oxford Hills School District receive free or reduced meals and all students in grades pre-kindergarten through 6 receive free meals, some parents of middle and high school students are failing to live up to their financial responsibility when it comes to paying for their child’s school lunch, said Colpitts.

Colpitts says the problem is the parents, not the students.

“Students should not be held accountable for the financial responsibilities of the parent and should be fed,” Colpitts.

The Oxford Hills School District is one of many school districts across the state and the country that have sought various ways to address the problem. In some cases, including in Maine school districts, this means refusing to serve a meal to a student or changing the type of meal the student is given until the meal is paid for.

Some call the method “food shaming.”

Although Colpitts said the Oxford Hills School District rarely has denied a student a meal, “food shaming,” is a practice that has become widespread enough across the country – including in Maine – to result in legislation to address the practice.

On Dec. 19, 2017, a Bipartisan Bill entitled, “An Act Forbidding Food Shaming, Food Denial and the Use of Food as Discipline Involving Any Child in Maine’s Public Schools” was referred to the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, who endorsed it in an 8-3 vote.

The pending legislation, sponsored by Sen. Joyce Maker of Washington, seeks to stop the practice of “food shaming” and requires a meal be provided to any public school student who requests and is eligible for the meal regardless of the student’s inability to pay for the school meal or failure to pay for meals in the past.

It requires school officials to take certain actions to assist the parent or guardian of such a student and prohibits a public school from punishing a student in certain ways solely because of the student’s inability to pay for a meal or because of any payments due for previous meals.

The pending bill also prohibits a public school from refusing a meal to a student as a form of or as part of a disciplinary action and openly identifying or stigmatizing student who cannot pay for a meal or has overdue payments by requiring those students to wear a wristband, hand stamp or other identifying mark or sign noticeable by others. It requires a public school to communicate about a student’s meal debts directly to the parent or guardian of the student rather than to the student.

Simply put, the legislation is aimed at stopping the practise of “food shaming.”

SAD 17 policy

The USDA Child Nutrition Program does not require that a student who pays for regular priced meals be served a meal without payment, but the Oxford Hills School District provides meals as a courtesy to those students who may forget or lose their lunch money.

Under the Oxford Hills School District Meal Charge Policy, adopted by the SAD 17 Board of Directors in 2016, the Food Service Department provides students with healthy meals each day “to ensure that the learning process is not impeded in any way because students are hungry.” Additionally, the goal of the policy is to promote responsible student behavior and minimize the fiscal burden to Food Service.

A student is allowed to charge a maximum of 10 meals to their account after the balance reaches zero. A La Carte purchases must be prepaid or cash at the register and no charging is allowed unless arrangements are made through the Food Service office, according to school policy.

The real problem

The problem, said Colpitts, is making sure someone is picking up the tab for the food.

Colpitts, and others, say the legislation does not seem to address that issue.

“The problem not being addressed is who should pay for the meals served to students whose parents fail to take responsibility to pay. How do we hold parents accountable?” he asked.

During testimony heard by the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs in mid January, Eileen King, executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association, addressed that same question on behalf of the MSSA members.

She said that while the MSSA agrees with the bill’s premise that a student should never be punished because of a parent’s failure to pay a lunch bill, and that communication over late bills must be had between the district and parents or guardians, the bill needs to address how to get the parents to pay their child’s food bill.

“In a perfect world, all food would be free in schools, and some districts are moving in that direction,” she said. “But, for most, food is still a very real cost in the budget and one that is not supported by the Essential Programs and Services model.”

That cost is picked up in some cases through taxes, which everyone pays for.

It is not fair, she said, to allow a group of parents who do pay for their child’s meal to have to pick up the tab for others who can, but don’t.

“What we find unclear in this bill is what avenues do we have open to us to get a parent to pay bills legitimately owed,” she asked.

The bill is not aimed at those students who are eligible for free or reduced meals and every effort is made to make sure those parents fill out application for free or reduced meals.

Applications available

The Oxford Hills School District meal program is one of the few self sustaining meal programs in the state. It uses no local taxpayer dollars to fund the program. It is paid for by revenue from the sales of meals and from the federally subsidized hot lunch program.

This means that the payment of meals from those who should be paying is very important to the financial operation of the meal program.

Parents are encouraged to complete an application for free and reduced meals even if they are not sure they qualify because the school system uses the information to make sure it receives the maximum amount the district is eligible for in state and federal subsidies.

Under the Oxford Hills School District, collection of balances owed continues throughout the school year and on May 15, accounts still owing money are turned into the school resource officer for collection.

Refunds for unused money can be obtained but must be claimed within the school year or the money becomes the property of the SAD 17 Food Service Program.

Colpitts said it is rare for a student to be denied a meal. The district provides a two-week grace period when the student will continue to be given meals and those meals are charged to the student’s account.

“Parents are contacted multiple times to make payment during this period. If after 10 days the account is not paid the student may be denied a meal.”

During the last three years, anonymous donors have come forward to payoff the balance of middle school and or high school students unpaid meal tabs, said Colpitts.

“This clears their debt up to the time of the donation. These donations have cleared the debt for all students in one or the other school each time – depending on the preference of the donor,” he said.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net