Lunch law comes with large price
A bill passed unanimously last summer with great intentions but tough consequences has hit the Hillsboro and Forest Grove school districts hard — so hard that local districts have found themselves dealing with an upwards of $22,000 in debt so far this year.
The "anti-lunch shaming" act, effective Aug. 8, 2017, was created to ensure students are always fed at school, regardless of their financial situation, and that they are given the same meal options as everybody else and aren't singled out in any way with a stamp, wristband or any other means of identification.
It seems simple: Feed children equally, and don't bring attention to students without money in their account by reminding them about it or making them bear an identifying mark of their situation.
However, thousands and thousands of dollars of negative debt later, schools have found themselves in a sticky situation.
In both the Forest Grove and Hillsboro school districts, nutrition service staff said they were in the dark about the legislation last year.
"What was obvious with the bill is that it wasn't run past anyone in the industry," said Nathan Roedel, executive director of nutrition services for the Hillsboro School District.
"We had no idea. We started hearing about it after it had passed. We were like, 'What's this lunch-shaming bill? What does that mean?'" said Stacie Reiter, director of nutrition services for Forest Grove School District.
Reiter said at the end of last year, the Forest Grove School District had about $900 in lunch money debt. So far this year, it has run up $17,000.
For Hillsboro, Roedel said the district went from $1,100 in lunch money debt at the end of last year to $22,000 so far this year, with a projected $40,000 by the end of the school year in June.
Though Roedel and Reiter agree the message behind the bill and many aspects of it are positive, one major detail in the bill seems to be sole reason for the debt incurring. Included in the bill is the statement, "A school district shall direct communications about amounts owed by a student for meals to the student's parents or guardian and not to the student."
The effect is straightforward: District staff are unable to ask students for their lunch money, remind them about the money they owe or ask them to remind their parents. The district can only communicate directly with parents themselves.
"The law says we can't talk about the money they owe once they get to our line," said Roedel. "Even though they owe money, we're like, 'Well, have a nice day!'"
Because staff aren't able to ask or remind students to pay for their lunch or breakfast, Roedel and Reiter assume students often forget they have money in their backpack, or to ask their parents to provide it.
"We contact a family about a negative balance and they will say, 'Oh, we gave a check or we gave cash (to our child),' but since we aren't allowed to ask the student if they have money, then the money just sits in their backpack and the bill goes unpaid,'" Reiter said.
In 1946, the free or reduced lunch program was created, part of the National School Lunch Act signed into law by President Harry S. Truman. The program allows qualifying families to sign up, and depending on their financial situation, their kids may qualify for either free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast.
In Oregon, students who qualify for reduced-price lunches are eligible to receive them for free.
Some schools in the districts fall under the Title I-A program. For these schools, a large enough percentage of the students enrolled come from low-income families, which qualifies each student at the school for free meals.
"(The 2017 law) really affects our students who may not qualify for free or reduced meals, or whose families haven't taken an opportunity to see if they would qualify," said Reiter.
Once the debt has incurred, the free and reduced program cannot cover the already owed expenses.
"Maybe all along, that family could have been receiving free and reduced benefits," Reiter said.
All the bill leaves district staff to do is communicate with parents, but their lack of success doing so is what continues to drive the debt deeper. Between letters to parents, emails and an immense number of phone call reminders, Forest Grove and Hillsboro have seen little response, officials said.
For Hillsboro, Roedel said they begin by sending automated calls home twice per week reminding parents that their child owes money.
"Once it's over $50 (owed), a human calls instead of a robot and says, 'Hey, what's going on — do you want to set up a payment plan or sign up for free and reduced meals?'" Roedel said.
With communicating to families being the only option the schools have, a whole new set of responsibilities and a greater level of effort has had to be put in place for staff, according to the Hillsboro and Forest Grove school officials.
"We can do all of the communication that we think would be necessary to recoup it all, but who has the manpower and time to do that?" Reiter said. "That isn't something that anyone's departments were set up to handle with this bill."
"It takes time for someone to call families and discuss this with them. It costs money to send letters home, with postage and mailing and supplies and time," Reiter said.
Reiter said at this point, the school districts are looking for guidance on how to most efficiently reach families and help parents understand the importance of paying the debt.
"It's important for us to recoup as much of that money as we can, because we don't want to pull it out of general funds," said Reiter. "But there has to be some help for districts to get this money back from families."
Reiter believes parents in the district are not aware of the severity of the debt, or what that might mean for the schools if the money is not paid back in time.
"Per USDA regulations, (the debt) has to be reconciled at the end of the year," said Reiter. "So those balances have to be zeroed out, and the funds to support that then come from general fund to reconcile that debt."
General fund money is the money used for curriculum, instruction, teacher salaries and classroom materials, among others. That means, district officials said, that those areas of need will be squeezed if the majority of the lunch debt money isn't collected.
"Now districts have to decide what they're going to do with this debt if they can't recoup it from the families who incurred it, and what, long-term, that looks like for their budgets," Reiter said. "Essentially, districts will have to budget for that debt if they can't collect it, and where does that money come from? That comes from programming and salaries."
Though both Reiter and Roedel weren't given a voice in the matter before the bill was passed, they have made sure to vocalize their opinions since.
"I wasn't going to sit down and just let it happen," said Roedel.
He has been working with several statewide organizations to compile data about how it affects the state, in order to present it to state Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, in an effort to make some technical fixes to the law, he said. McLane, the minority leader in the Oregon House of Representatives, was one of the legislation's chief sponsors last year.
"The basic ask has been to allow us to have the ability to ask students if they brought money for the present transaction, keeping in mind not to discuss past-due or delinquent amounts," Roedel said. "And to have a statement included that specifies parents (and) guardians as being responsible for meal charges."
Though it has been no easy task, Roedel believes he is starting to get traction on presenting the change.
"As long as (the Legislature) is willing to work with us to make it better with operators, we can fix this," he said.
McLane's office did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the office of state Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, who was the legislation's other principal sponsor.
Roedel is passionate about making changes to the lunch-shaming law, but he doesn't believe the law is all negative.
"It's not a bad thing, it's a good thing," said Roedel. "In general, Oregon is a very supportive state in offering meals to the students it serves."
Reiter agrees that there are many positive elements to the bill and that with some slight changes, many people will benefit from it.
"We should never in the news now hear about a student who had food taken away from them because they didn't have money to pay for it," Reiter said.
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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