MIDCOAST — An issue that continuously sparks debate, outrage over children allegedly being shamed for carrying negative school meal balances, and comparisons to how other countries, such as Sweden and Finland, operate their school meal programs concerns families having to figure out how to pay off their student’s negative balance on their school meal accounts.
These meal accounts allow parents to add funds so a student may purchase their school meal. Some students are eligible to receive free meals from the government and thus do not need to add funds to their accounts. For those that do need to add funds, however, not having ample funds in the account will create a negative balance, which is when the problem ensues.
The accounts are either managed directly through the school district or a third-party system is used with parents able to go online and load funds to their student’s account.
The issue of paying for school lunches galvanized Rep. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast, to sponsor a bill, An Act To Prevent Food Shaming in Maine’s Public Schools, which passed during Maine’s 129th session, and was signed into law by Gov. Janet Mills.
The issue also illustrates bigger societal concerns about ensuring proper nutrition for all children, and destigmatizing the payment processes.
A report from the School Nutrition Association noted about three-quarters of school districts in the country had student meal accounts with negative balances at the end of the 2015-16 school year, an increase of 71 percent of the districts reporting negative balances at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
Unsurprisingly, the issue is prevalent in the Midcoast, as well.
RSU 71, which includes seven schools surrounding the Belfast area, has 197 students with negative food account balances this summer, as of June 18, 2019.
At its peak this school year, 250 students in RSU 71 had negative balances.
At the Edna Drinkwater School in Northport, the K-8 school has no students with outstanding negative account balances this summer.
“Most of the families that carry a balance over the year are working families that are just getting by,” said Northport School Department Food Service Director Kristine Chapman.
At the seven-school RSU 40 school district, there are 226 accounts with negative balances, as of July 1, meaning the district is attempting to collect $8,929.72.
Karla Miller, the district’s business manager, wrote in an email the negative balance has been as high as $9,729 this school year with a high of approximately 250 accounts holding negative balances.
Though the district is going through the process of collecting the unpaid balances from families, Miller noted the district has received donations earmarked for negative meal balances from the towns of Friendship and Union, and an anonymous donor residing in Warren.
The collection process, Miller noted, includes telephone calls for low or negative balances from our automated notification system, telephone calls from our kitchen managers and food service director, letters, and even going to small claims court for unpaid balances.
Within Five Town CSD, covering Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, and School Administrative District 28, covering Camden-Rockport Elementary School and Camden-Rockport Middle School, there are 311 students across the three schools carrying negative account balances.
The high school, drawing students from Appleton, Camden, Rockport, Hope and Lincolnville, leads the way with 125 students in the red. The Rockport-based elementary and middle schools have 90 and 96 accounts with negative balances, respectively.
According to Five Town CSD Food Service Director Susan Boivin, who oversees food operations for the three Rockport-based schools, part of the problem is some parents or guardians do not always get their free or reduced lunch applications sorted out and submitted when they ideally should, thus those families do not reap the benefits they should be getting at the start of their eligibility period. (The yearly applications can be submitted at any point in the school year, especially if circumstances change during the academic year, though families should submit the applications ahead of meals being issued to enjoy all the benefits.)
Chris Downing, superintendent of RSU 20, which comprises three public schools in Searsport, emphasized during a phone interview that the numbers on paper do not paint the whole picture.
Many households, he said, are attempting to feed more mouths than the free or reduced meal application forms ask about and food insecurity is a high-ranking issue across the state.
In Downing’s district, there are $2,300 worth of unpaid meal balances at the elementary school level and $3,000 combined for middle and high school.
Those numbers equate to approximately 60 students at Searsport Elementary School and approximately 70 students combined across Searsport District Middle School and Searsport District High School, according to Superintendent Downing.
A national issue
The Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program, according to a 2017 U.S. News & World Report article, “provides free and reduced-priced lunch for students from low-income families living at 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level, respectively.”
An April 2019 New Food Economy article stated 130 percent below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four is $32,630 and 185 percent is $46,435.
Though many school districts across the country have been accused of shaming students with negative school meal balances, such as verbally telling students in front of classmates they have negative balances, throwing away their meals, giving them less desirable meals or stamping their hands, Maine recently outlawed the BEHAVIOR practice.
Legislation sponsored by Representative Janice Dodge, D-Belfast, during the recently concluded legislative session was signed into law by Governor Janet Mills near the end of April to end the shaming of students with negative account balances.
The bill prohibits punishing, openly identifying or stigmatizing a student who cannot pay or who has payments due, according to Rep. Dodge who noted the bill requires school districts only communicate with parents or guardians about negative account balances and not with the students.
A Beacon article by the Maine People’s Alliance about the food shaming legislation noted a 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture report found nearly half of all school districts in the United States used lunch shaming methods.
The report asserted 39 percent of school districts reported withholding the advertised hot lunch option and providing an alternate meal, such as a cold sandwich, while three percent of districts denied providing any meals to students with negative balances.
“Nothing should stand in the way of a student being provided a nutritious meal,” Rep. Dodge said, in a emailed statement. “And no student should be made to feel less-than because of the plate food is served on, the line they stand in or the ability or timeliness of their guardians to make payment. This passage of this bill will make our schools more inclusive for all.”
State Senator David Miramant, D-Knox, wrote in an email the food shaming bill was the first step and the Legislature, which he noted is coming off a session in which they accomplished a length list of goals, will be looking at ways to fund schools fairly to eliminate deficits for the food subsidy programs at the end of each school year.
“Making sure all of the children in this country have enough to eat should certainly be a priority for our federal government,” said Sen. Miramant. “[The food subsidy program] would be a great program to fully fund as a step in the right direction.”
“The legislation enacted this session is prompting local food service coordinators to connect with the Department of Education for their assistance with the problem, and that's a positive development,” said Representative Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, in an email. “I understand from my colleagues on the Education Committee that there are multiple legislative initiatives dealing with the school lunch and breakfast programs, in addition to one that feeds students who participate in after school activities. Federal dollars and subsidies need to be leveraged as much as possible.”
What more, though, could the state or federal government do to provide more funding to shrink or eliminate the amount of negative balances?
One approach, suggested by Chapman and RSU 71 Director of Nutrition Perley Martin, could include an overhaul of the income eligibility guidelines for free and reduced student meals.
“Maine is an expensive place to live. Especially the coast of Maine,” Chapman stated. “Perhaps the income guidelines should be regional.”
Universal feeding could be an answer, Chapman and Martin suggested, though Chapman cautioned the idea could bring unintended consequences that would need to be addressed before any legislation is introduced.
“[T]here [would have] to be strict guidelines [for universal feeding] attached so that school districts cannot adhere to the budget by serving cheaper foods or by cutting staff hours or salary,” Chapman said. “As it is ‘lunch ladies’ do not make a livable wage.”
In the recently passed state biennial budget, Rep. Dodge noted legislators successfully increased the rate from two percent to 3.75 percent by 2021, though she believes it is paramount to achieve a five percent rate of revenue sharing to get municipalities the support they need and noted she will advocate for five percent in future budget cycles.
“Unfortunately, with so many competing funding priorities at the state and local level, part of our focus needs to be on how we ensure all students receive the meals they need under the current funding streams,” she stated. “Any additional funding for school lunch programs at both the state and federal level would provide needed relief to schools who are training staff and providing nutritional meals to students receiving free or reduced lunch. If we provide more money to our municipalities, communities could choose to allocate additional funding to school lunch programs. That’s why increasing revenue sharing, or the distribution rate of state taxes to municipalities, has been important to me.”
Sen. Miramant pointed out the state will continuously come up short on funding priorities until a complete overhaul of how the state taxes is executed.
“During our break from Augusta, I will be putting together a framework for a comprehensive, fair and progressive tax structure,” he said. “This will help us balance fair taxation with the needs of our state.”
While much work is to be done regarding negative meal balances, a related issue is set to be tackled in the near future by Sen. Miramant.
After being informed by penbaypilot.com that free training sessions for school cafeteria workers are scarce, the state senator pledged to encourage the Department of Education, “to designate more trainers regionally to help minimize the cost of the trainings.”
“The [Department of Education] is actively seeking input from legislators and administrators and this is just the thing they are looking for,” he said.
The training sessions are mandated by federal regulations, according to one area food service director who noted the training sessions can be costly, depending on what organization conducts the training, which can be near impossible to align with the already-thinly stretched budgets area food service directors are being provided.
As for what can be expected in the meantime for school districts dealing with negative balances, Rep. Dodge said districts will receive some assistance.
“The Department of Education will be working diligently with local food service coordinators to keep unpaid balances down,” said Rep. Dodge.
At the same time, school districts and its representatives are encouraged to reach out to their state government representatives to keep the communication lines open for this issue.
“I'm hopeful that districts will reach out to their representatives so that we can keep working on this important issue, as it has multiple ramifications for student success,” said Rep. Doudera.
Reach George Harvey at: firstname.lastname@example.org.