The new school year brought a change to the daily lunch routine at Fauquier County schools. Students who run up unpaid balances on their school lunch accounts will no longer be served “substitute meals” of a cold cheese sandwiches and milk.
Up until this year, school cafeteria workers had the unpleasant job of ensuring elementary and middle school students who charged their meals more than three times were served the no-frills sandwiches instead of the hot entrees offered to students who could pay for their lunches or qualified for free lunches under U.S. Department of Agriculture’s family-income guidelines. High school students were not permitted to charge for any meals.
But that policy changed this school year because the Fauquier County School Board asked division administrators to reexamine the policy last May.
During their meeting Sept. 18, the board was presented a new policy for school lunches that eliminates substitute meals – which in most cases were cheese sandwiches and milk – and instead allows students to charge meals while school staff members contact their parents to get to the root of the payment problems.
The school board will vote on the new policy at its next meeting in October. It will officially go into effect at mid-year.
But schools were already told to stop offering the substitute meals when school began in August in anticipation of the new policy, Preshant Shrestha, the school division’s recently promoted assistant superintendent for business and planning, said in an email this week.
Shrestha said the purpose of the change is to enhance students’ academic performance by reaching out to families of students who have persistent negative balances in hopes of finding out why students couldn’t pay and whether other supports are needed.
It could be that families qualify for free or reduced-price school meals but have not yet filled out the required paperwork, or something else could be going on, Shrestha said.
“This revision recognizes that a chronic negative balance on a student’s meal account is one of many key indicators that a family may be struggling and that a student might need support in their academic career,” Shrestha wrote.
“The past practice of providing a substitute meal for accounts in arrears was designed to trigger outreach to families and was not a meal plan beyond a day or two,” he added. “We believe the new family engagement approach is a better approach for our students, families, and academic outcomes while still maintaining the expectation of a balanced budget.”
The proposed policy change corresponds with increased awareness across the country that schools’ policies regarding unpaid meal balances were, in some cases, embarrassing and stigmatizing to low-income students.
Policies that required cafeteria workers to take lunch trays from students and even throw food in the garbage were dubbed “lunch shaming.” The practices prompted both a new USDA policy and proposed federal legislation – the “Anti-Lunch Shaming Act” – aimed at informing parents of schools’ rules and encouraging schools to consider changing them.
The legislation would outlaw stigmatizing students with hand stamps or wrist bands or by requiring them to do chores to pay for their meals. The act also seeks to require that schools streamline processes for helping families apply for free and reduced-price lunches. The bill has so far stalled in a committee, however, and has not passed in either the House or the Senate.
The USDA, however, did make a change. As of July 1, all schools participating in the federal meals plan – which is nearly all public schools, nationwide – must inform parents and guardians of their policies regarding unpaid meal balances.
Fauquier County schools informed parents about the old policy and plans to provide the new policy – in writing – to all students’ households once it passes, Shrestha wrote.
School board members reacted positively to the new policy when Shrestha presented it to them during their Sept. 18 meeting. School board Chairman Brian Gorg (Center) said he considers the change a “really humane way” to deal with a problem that is rarely the students’ fault.
Also, he said he hopes the new policy is easier for school cafeteria workers who bore the responsibility of switching out regular meals for substitute cheese sandwiches.
“I think it’s really important that we take that pressure off our food-service workers,” Gorg said.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org