AUGUSTA — Maine school districts are reshaping their policies for feeding students in response to a bundle of new state laws aimed at reforming public school nutrition programs.

The laws range from banning so-called “food shaming” to adding new after-school snack programs, and while Maine schools will see some new state resources come their way, they may have to pick up some of the tab, state and local officials say.

The Maine Department of Education issued a “priority notice” this month that has detailed questions and answers about Maine’s new food shaming law in an effort to prepare school districts for the new regulation.

Maine joins about 10 other states in prohibiting the practice of food shaming – such as providing a child with a cheaper meal or denying them food entirely – when their parents owe a debt to a food program.

Alisa Roman, the director of nutrition services in Lewiston’s Public Schools, said meal debt in her district is regularly around $10,000. Roman said she and others in her role in Maine are looking carefully at the new law. Although Lewiston qualifies for a federal program that allows it to provide free lunch to all students, the district is one of many that also provide a la carte items that students pay for.

Lewiston’s free lunch program has been in operation for about three years, yet there are still students in the system carrying lunch debt from previous years, Roman said.

The new rules require schools to communicate with parents and not students about debt. They also prohibit a school from singling out a student before others or alone, or from providing a student with a less costly substitute meal when they don’t have money to pay for lunch.

Schools also will not be allowed to punish students with policies like withholding graduation privileges when they are carrying a meal debt or forcing them to work to pay for a debt.

Roman’s concern is that students may be racking up food debts that they don’t even know about, and that some parents simply won’t pay, especially if they know their child is going to get a meal, regardless.

“It’s a touchy subject,” said Roman, noting that school officials don’t want to punish children when parents don’t pay their bills. “On the one end I’m proud of Maine because kids shouldn’t be punished for what adults do, but when you read through this it’s going to be difficult to do,” she said.

Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said districts across Maine are gearing up as they anticipate possible increases in the amount of debt they will have to carry in school nutrition programs as a result of the new law.

Many districts already have large amounts of food debt on the books. An informal survey of  just 18 Maine school districts from Fort Kent to York that was presented to the Legislature in testimony this year showed more than $330,000 in unpaid food bills for students.

“Our problem is collecting debt that is owed presumably by families who can pay,” Victoria Wallack, the director of communications and government affairs for MSMA, told lawmakers on the Legislature’s Education Committee. “One option is to have all taxpayers pick up unpaid debt as part of the school budget, but is that fair to those who do pay?”

She said districts with larger numbers of economically disadvantaged students were moving to federally subsidized free lunch for all programs, like the one in Lewiston. Portland has a similar program.

“But not all districts can do that and for them the lunch program is a very real cost in the budget,” Wallack told lawmakers.

Bailey said the new law really focuses on improving communication with parents and guardians on food debts and that while districts can ultimately bring a debt-collection action against a guardian in small claims court, the legal costs of doing that are usually more than the debt itself – so it seldom happens.

Kelli Deveaux, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education, said food shaming is increasingly being recognized as a problem nationally.

“Schools have always dealt with unpaid debt, whether it is lost books or materials, or outstanding balances for meals,” Deveaux wrote in an email. “While there are options for free/reduced lunch  for students, there are still families who may not qualify but who may still be struggling to make ends meet, or myriad other scenarios in which a student or family may not have funds in a lunch account.”

Deveaux said the food shaming bill was intended to ensure best practices in all Maine schools when it comes to feeding all students, regardless of their school meal account balance.

There was no funding attached to the food shaming bill, but the Legislature did appropriate money for several other new laws aimed at expanding public school nutrition programs.

Among them are bills that expand school breakfast programs and create optional after-school snack programs. The bills will provide about $500,000 to school districts to fund those programs.

The Legislature also funded a new law that will cover a district’s costs in providing reduced-price lunches to qualified students.

Congress also is considering a bill that would ban food shaming – and provide funding to reimburse schools for any debt they take on.

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, sits on the House Agriculture Committee, which oversees the National School Lunch Program. She said Wednesday that both Republicans and Democrats generally agree it’s time to reauthorize the program, which hasn’t seen any changes for decade.

Pingree said she’s optimistic more funding for school lunch programs, including some to cover the costs of food shaming legislation passed by Congress, is possible.

“It has a good chance of going in the child nutrition authorization,” Pingree said in an interview. She said laws like Maine’s will help push the federal government along, and that public schools are a key to not only ensuring students have at least one nutritious meal a day, but also to teaching them what a nutritious meal is.

She said some communities have been fortunate to have a corporate or nonprofit donor step up to cover the cost of meals in public schools, but that should not be the norm.

“Just like we fund textbooks and desks, we should fund feeding our kids,” Pingree said.

 

 

Related Headlines


Comments are not available on this story.