New Amherst school district policy does away with ‘lunch shaming’

  • FILE - This Jan. 25, 2017 file photo shows a lunch served at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, N.Y., where all meals are now free under the federal Community Eligibility Provision. A donor inspired by a tweet raised money to pay off lunch debt in districts around the country, as well as thousands of dollars in overdue lunch fees at other schools in the Kingston district. (AP Photo/Mary Esch, FIle) Mary Esch

Published: 6/19/2017 10:00:53 PM

AMHERST — The Amherst-Pelham Regional District last week became the latest district to approve a policy to step away from the practice of “lunch shaming” students who owe money on their school lunch accounts.

The policy comes amid a national conversation over humiliating practices often used in the collection of school lunch debt. Students around the country with outstanding lunch balances have been singled out in front of classmates, ordered to clean tables to pay the debt or had their hot meals thrown away in front of peers.

A 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that during the 2011-12 school year, almost 45 percent of districts provided students an alternative meal — often a cold sandwich — when they couldn’t pay.

The USDA is now requiring all school food authorities operating federal breakfast or lunch programs to have a policy on collecting overdue lunch payments by July 1, providing a look at how some of the Pioneer Valley’s schools deal with lunch debt and students whose balances dip into the red.

An old policy that the Amherst Regional School Committee approved in March 2015 called for students with negative account balances to be given a “designated meal alternate” — a “cheese sandwich with fruit and vegetable,” for example.

That part of the policy, however, was never put into place; its implementation was delayed as the School Committee discussed best practices, according to Director of Finance Sean Mangano.

“The previous policy had some punitive elements, such as limiting students with overdue balances to a meal alternate,” Mangano wrote in an email. “After getting feedback from parents, school committee members, and the school equity task force, we made some revisions.”

Under the new policy, approved June 13, the change is obvious: “All students will receive a regular lunch each and every day regardless of overdue balance.”

“People are delighted and so happy and so thankful that we have a more humane policy that takes into consideration family circumstances,” School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage said, adding that many families had approached her with concerns about the previous policy, which was approved before she was on the School Committee. “This new policy is consistent with our commitment for equity and to do what’s right.”

The policy also lays out the steps the food service department is to take to collect outstanding debt, which Mangano said is around $50,000 across the Amherst, Pelham and regional districts. In addition to monthly emails to parents with low or negative balances, notices will be mailed home three times a year. The district’s Family Center is tasked with acting, upon request, as a liaison between the food service department and families.

The new rules also give the superintendent or a designated official the discretion to reduce or waive a family’s debt based on individual circumstances. Parents and guardians must make arrangements before the school year’s end “to fully or partially pay, or waive, outstanding balances.”

Interim Amherst-Pelham Superintendent Michael Morris said another improvement in the new policy is that it entirely removes students from the communication loop when debt becomes an issue.

At the June 13 School Committee meeting, several members declared the new policy one of the country’s most progressive. Though Morris wouldn’t commit to that characterization, he did say the policy is one of the least punitive he has seen.

Other districts

Other districts in the Pioneer Valley have previously put forth their own varying policies on food charges and collection. Some offer an alternative meal to those behind on payments, and others take additional steps to collect lunch debt.

Northampton Public Schools adopted a policy in December 2016 that allows students to purchase “a Type A meal (the regular school lunch) if they have a negative balance.”

Northampton Superintendent John Provost said that sometime in 2013 the district abandoned the practice of giving students with a negative balance a sandwich for lunch. Under the new policy, students with negative account balances are not allowed to charge a la carte items, including milk purchased outside of a full meal.

Provost said his district currently has $14,186 of debt on the books, and that the district attempts to collect as much of that debt as possible. Some of the strategies used to collect that debt include calling parents when balances go into the red, follow-up letters, possible calls from principals or food service personnel and certified letters from the school attorney.

“I think it clarifies the expectation that students will receive a nutritious lunch and also the expectation that we will be good stewards of public dollars in an attempt to collect debt resulting from providing those students lunches,” Provost said of the policy.

The Hampshire Regional school district doesn’t have a school committee-approved policy on the books, but district schools do already contain information on lunch debt in their handbooks, according to Superintendent Craig Jurgensen.

“Parents and guardians will be notified if student accounts become overdue and we will encourage you to apply for the Free & Reduced Program,” the policy in the William E. Norris School’s handbook reads. “If accounts become seriously overdue (greater than $20) students will be offered a basic lunch.”

A “basic lunch,” Jurgensen said, means the choice of a sandwich that comes with the sides offered with a regular lunch: vegetables, fruit and milk.

On Ware Public Schools food service department’s website, a “lunch charge policy” also designates a meal alternative for students with negative balances.

“These students will receive a peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk until their negative balance is paid in full,” the policy states. “Students with an allergy to peanuts will receive a cheese sandwich.”

A free-and-reduced lunch form is sent home with notification that a student has charged the maximum number of lunches, and parents have five days to “satisfy the balance, return a completed free or reduced lunch form if applicable or make other arrangements with the building principal.”

Belchertown’s and Easthampton’s superintendents, as well as several school committee members, did not respond to requests for their own policies.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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