The days of serving a simple cheese sandwich in the school cafeteria when students owe money for unpaid lunches have come to a close.
A new law prohibiting “food shaming” that passed in April takes effect for the 2019-20 school year, and it will change how schools handle lunch debt — which has reached more than $2,000 in the Bangor School Department and $10,000 in neighboring Hermon.
The law prohibits public schools from publicly identifying a student who has an outstanding lunch balance. That means a school cannot serve an alternate meal to an indebted student in place of the full meal all other students receive. It also means school staff cannot remind students about their lunch debt directly. That communication has to happen with parents.
Administrators in the Bangor area agree that the new bill will benefit students because they will receive a full lunch regardless of accrued lunch debt. But they are worried that meal debts owed to their districts that already hover in the thousands of dollars will increase. Districts around Bangor typically charge between $2.40 and $3 for lunch.
“It may become more of an issue now that we can’t do anything other than serve the children meals regardless,” Bangor Food Services Director Noelle Scott said.
As of the end of last school year, the Bangor School Department had a districtwide school lunch debt of $2,254, Scott said. The district — where 51 percent of students qualify for free meals — relied on written reminders to parents to collect it, she said.
“We generally write a letter or email to the parents, usually if their balance is over $30-40, let them know what their balance is and suggest that they bring a lunch from home,” she said.
In the cafeteria, students in the lunch line whose debt had reached that threshold would receive an alternate meal with a cheese sandwich — which also served as a reminder to parents that they needed to pay their lunch debt, Scott said.
In Regional School Unit 34, which covers Old Town, Alton and Bradley, the alternate meal was a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich. The 1,500-student district’s total lunch debt stands at about $7,000, said Food Service Director Stephanie Salley.
Eliminating the alternate meal is a good move, Salley said. The district — where 43 percent of students qualify for free lunches due to low income — will also stop reminding middle and high school students about their debt while retaining reminders to parents.
“Historically in other states, the meal debt has grown exponentially,” Salley said. “If we end up getting big balances, we’ll end up in collections mode.”
In Regional School Unit 22, Food Service Director Kathy Kittridge said the district — which covers Hampden, Newburgh, Winterport and Frankfort — also has seen an increase in lunch debt in the past few years.
Even though the district — where 21 percent of students qualify for free meals — does not rely on alternate meals, its old policy allowed them.
“I felt it was singling out the children,” Kittridge said. ”It’s not really the child’s fault if they don’t have the money.”
Kittridge said she is concerned that school lunch debt might increase under the new law.
“My concern is that it’s going to be interpreted as people don’t have to pay, and we’re going to have a lot of debt, and we’re going to have to raise taxes to cover it as part of the school budget,” Kittridge said.
Superintendent Gary Gonyar said he did not expect the law to change much in Hermon schools, which have a $10,000 lunch debt. The school department does not rely on alternate meals.
“If a kid needs a lunch, they get a lunch,” he said. “It may have contributed to the fact that we have a lot of money owed to us.”
In addition to sending notices to parents, schools can continue to withhold caps and gowns until graduating seniors pay off all debt they owe their schools, be it lunch debt or debt from other charges, administrators said.
“We’re now providing universal lunch without universal payment,” Salley said. “I think overall it’s a good thing for our children, but for our lunch programs that may not be the case.”