School leaders want to protect students from being shamed in the lunch line when their meal accounts run low.
New federal and state laws are requiring public school divisions to adopt a policy that informs parents that they are expected to pay any debt incurred for their children’s meals—and that that information is communicated to the parent, not the student.
“This is an effort to eliminate the student shaming,” said School Board Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles), who sits on the Finance and Facilities Committee that worked on the proposed policy.
There was a time when students who did not have enough funds to pay for a meal were given wristbands or stamps on their hands, Morse said. “This is an effort to move this to the parents, the responsible parties, and take that whole issue away from the actual student.”
The School Board was presented the proposed policy at its meeting Tuesday.
Becky Domokos‐Bays, school nutrition services supervisor, told the board that starting this school year, cafeteria workers can no longer tell a student they are short money. “All communication about any balance has to be to the parents, so it will no longer be taking place in the lunch line,” she said.
The proposed policy states that students who have insufficient funds will receive the advertised school menu meal of their choice. They will not be allowed to incur debt for a la carte items, such as chips and ice cream.
“It’s focused on getting kids a good, healthy meal,” Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Kevin Lewis said.
The recommended policy also says students cannot be required to do work or chores to pay down the debt. It also would require families who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals to pay for student meals.
Several School Board members said a policy that avoids student embarrassment about their family’s financial situation and ensures they get a hot meal is long overdue.
Lewis also addressed the growing debt that the School Nutrition Services Department incurs each year from families who do not pay for their children’s meals. It typically peaks at $20,000 each year, but it’s already at $66,000 this school year. That may be because word has spread that community donations—drummed up by a Loudoun Education Foundation campaign—have paid off the debt for the past two years.
“It may be that…we’re not sure what’s causing it,” Lewis said. “From a collections standpoint, we’ve been successful in cleaning up that debt from donations and other sources, so we’ll work on that again this year.”
Part of the new state law prohibits school systems from using money from the school nutrition services fund—funded through purchased meals and reimbursement for families qualifying for the federal free and reduced-price meals program—to pay down students’ meal debt.
School Board member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said the board may want to approach their legislators about providing state money to help cover that annual debt. The fact the school divisions can no longer cover that debt with its school nutrition fund sounds like an unfunded mandate, he added.
“If the state passes a mandate, then they should fund it,” he said. “I’m glad we haven’t had a problem in the past, and I hope we don’t going forward. We just need to stay on top of it and make sure the state is aware of the impact of the law.”
Morse added, “I imagine they’re going to hear widespread pushback from throughout the state because it’s going to impact every school division.”
The board is expected to adopt the policy at its Jan. 22 meeting.