Monroe County school board passes school lunch debt policy, some worried about “lunch shaming”

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MONROE COUNTY, Ind. – A measure passed by the Monroe County Community School Corporation board is creating some concerns about school lunch shaming. On Tuesday night, board members voted 4-2 in favor a policy about how to handle students who do not have lunch money.

Monroe County students are allowed to charge three meals. After that, staff must give students a peanut butter sandwich and milk, instead of a hot meal.

“They have a conversation and make the switch with that student from whatever they had for the alternative,” said Hattie Johnson, the food services director.

Johnson says this helps them manage some of the school lunch debt and encourage parents to add money to their child’s account. This year’s school lunch debt was at $5900 as of Tuesday afternoon.

“In some instances, we never recoup that loss,” she said.

Federal guidelines require local districts to cover that kind of debt.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be the local tax dollars that go into the general fund that [residents] are already paying that will have to offset that,” Johnson said.

But, the two school board members who voted against the policy say the alternative meals make students feel singled out for their families’ financial struggles.

“Everybody in the cafeteria knows,” said Sue Wanzer, one of the school board members who opposes the policy. “When you get a peanut butter sandwich and milk, they know what that means. So no matter what we do to eliminate that stigma, kids are still feeling uncomfortable.”

“It’s not acceptable to use children as pawns in financial transactions,” said Cathy Fuentes-Roher, who also voted against the policy. “I haven’t seen any data that shows given a child an alternate meal is saving us money or helping get parents to pay.”

Instead, Wanzer said she’s willing to budget money to cover the school lunch debt.

“Let’s make the policy no kid is denied a hot meal and we’ll deal with the money later,” Wanzer said.

The food services director said kids likely know what the peanut butter lunch means but she does not think it leads to problems for students.

“When I’m in buildings, I haven’t seen other students tease those who are without money,” Johnson said.

The school lunch debt policy came up for discussion because the USDA requires districts have their debt procedures in writing by July, according to Johnson.

Johnson, along with Wanzer, said they have gotten calls from people in the district who want to help cover the debt for children.

Community members who want to help families with school lunch debt can make specific donations to the MCCSC by clicking here. 

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