New law ensures no student will be ‘lunch shamed.’ Now, meal debts are mounting in Thurston County

Students pick their lunch at Lacey’s Chinook Middle School on Tuesday.
Students pick their lunch at Lacey’s Chinook Middle School on Tuesday.

Starting this year, students around the state can no longer be denied meals, regardless of their ability to pay.

A law passed by the Legislature earlier this year prohibits what’s commonly referred to as “lunch shaming,” or holding children accountable for unpaid school meals. But the law comes with a price, and school districts, including some in Thurston County, are paying it.

“The intent of the law is good — to not embarrass kids — but it’s a little scary in terms of districts having this debt and parents maybe not having the incentive to fill out free and reduced lunch applications,” said Courtney Schrieve, a spokeswoman for North Thurston Public Schools, where lunch debt topped $21,000 as of last week.

That’s up from just $4,500 at the start of the school year, carried over from last year. Schrieve said most of the debt is attributed to students who do not get free or reduced lunch prices based on family income.

North Thurston is not alone.

Farther north, the Bethel School District has also accrued $21,000 in lunch debt this year. Federal Way Public Schools’ balance is $30,000, while Tacoma Public Schools is facing more than $77,000 in unpaid meal charges.

Lunch debt at Tumwater School District is up compared with previous years. Laurie Wiedenmeyer, the district’s community relations coordinator, said it is also seeing more accounts that owe $30 or more.

When staff started calling parents at the beginning of the school year to let them know they had to pay, parents said they were confused about the new law.

“They assumed that all kids would be eating for free,” Wiedenmeyer said.

Washington is one of 27 states that introduced a Hungry-Free Students’ Bill of Rights after New Mexico first did so in 2017.

The bill, also called ESHB 2610, was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in March and became effective in June. Sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, and a string of other legislators, the bill addresses how districts and personnel react to students’ inability to pay for meals.

“School personnel, school district personnel, and volunteers are prohibited from taking any action that would publicly identify a student who cannot pay for a school meal or for meals previously served to the student, including requiring the student to wear an identifying marker or serving the student an alternative meal,” the law states.

The law eliminates caps on any negative meal balances and requires district staff to:

Direct communications about amounts owed to the student’s parent or guardian if the student is under the age of 15.

Notify parents of a negative balance on the student’s school meal account within 10 days of earning the charge.

Take specified actions if students have not paid for more than five meals, such as determining if they would qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free school meals, while families between 130 and 185 percent of poverty are eligible for the reduced price meals program, according to the National School Lunch Program.

Increasing meal debt isn’t just a state trend — it’s a national trend, according to the School Nutrition Association.

About 75 percent of districts across the nation reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year, while 40.2 percent report that the number of students without adequate funds increased last school year, according to a 2018 School Nutrition Operations Report.

The impact

On a recent Friday, students at Whitman Elementary School in Tacoma followed their normal lunchroom procedure, grabbing food and giving cards preloaded with money to a staff member at the cash register.

Full meals cost $2.75 for Tacoma elementary and middle school students and $3 for high school students.

Sometimes, those lunch cards wouldn’t have enough money to cover the meal. Before the bill was enacted, elementary and middle school students with a negative balance of $10 were told to set their tray aside and given an emergency meal consisting of a sandwich and milk. That’s no longer the case.

“Starting this year, school cafeterias will not deny any student a USDA-approved meal because of a family’s inability to pay,” the Tacoma district announced on its website earlier this month.

If a student’s meal card shows a negative balance, the charge is recorded, but students can carry on with their meals with no interruptions.

At the high school level, it used to be if students didn’t have money to pay, they wouldn’t get a meal. Now, high schools are seeing the highest increase in meal debt as students have started eating but not always paying.

Some legislators foresaw this, citing in a bill report that districts would see a spike in meal debt because “students who do not currently eat school meals due to finances, and do not have charges, may start eating. In addition, parents who struggle to pay, but still pay, for school meals may decide not to pay.”

Parents still have to pay for the meals their children receive. In many districts, a student’s debt follows them until graduation, when it has to be cleared — and it can’t be paid for by the district with federal nutrition funds. If parents don’t pay, districts can pursue collections of those debts.

The North Thurston district used to give students who had lunch debt pared-down meals. Last year it started collecting donations to pay for full meals for those students.

This year the money went to covering students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, but the donation fund is empty now. The district is sending letters to parents, in addition to calling and emailing them, to let them know about their child’s lunch debt, and officials are talking to lawmakers about tweaks that might help the situation.

“The nice thing now is that the kids aren’t involved in this,” Schrieve said.

Abby Spegman of The Olympian contributed to this report.