In the movie “Oliver,” based on Charles Dicken’s famous book “Oliver Twist,” hungry orphans are depicted watching a young Oliver address the pitiless administrator with his empty bowl, pleading “Please sir, I want some more.”

Few movie scenes are more heart wrenching. The novel, published in the mid-19th century, exposed the widespread and cruel treatment of orphans at that time. The poverty and hunger affecting some children in America today may not be as obvious as it once was but it is still a reality and it is undeniable that the idea of refusing to give a hungry child food still seems appallingly cruel.

In school, not eating all day can adversely affect student achievement, contributing to irritability, an inability to focus, and lower energy for completing assignments and participating in school activities. Chronic hunger and malnutrition has an enduring physical and psychological impact and can make children more susceptible to illness; cause depression, anxiety and withdrawal; and prevent the brain from developing properly, resulting in long-term effects on learning abilities.

Children who come to school without food or meal money are not always suffering from chronic hunger. The reason may be as simple as forgetfulness – like leaving the meal at home on the kitchen counter. Nonetheless, the school day is long and it is a lot to ask any child to function without eating for a minimum of four instructional hours and a school day lasting between six and seven hours. It is inevitable that some children will come to school without a meal or money and when that child enters the food line at your school, the humanity with which the child is treated becomes the concern of school leaders.

Free and Reduced Lunch Subsidies are available from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for school meals. Individuals qualifying for these and other federally funded food and nutrition programs are required to fill out an application and meet the income eligibility guidelines determined by the USDA. Participation in these programs is optional for public schools, and some districts that have a small percentage of qualifying families may opt not to participate. Frequently, these boards still collect applications for the federal program but then offer a free or reduced price meal option comparable to the federal programs at the district’s expense.

Not all families needing assistance apply for the federal meal programs. Some families fear that they will be stigmatized by applying. Undocumented immigrants may be worried that the information on the application will expose their immigration status and lead to deportation. Therefore it is important that the school board and administration, through the development of policy and procedures, encourage families to alert the school of their needs and of any hardship, and cooperate in planning appropriate accommodations.

Pricing meals for students who do not qualify according to the federal income eligibility guidelines is a matter of local discretion. It is also the responsibility of the board to make policy decisions about providing alternate meals or extending credit to children who come to school without their meal or meal money. Unidentified families needing assistance, students and/or families that forget meals or meal money and even those people who intentionally “game the system” can contribute to substantial unplanned deficits in a district cafeteria account when it is the policy of the board to extend credit and/or provide alternate meals.

Section 143 of the federal law, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorizes the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to implement standards for meal charges and the provision of alternate meals. A memorandum (SP 46-2016, July 8, 2016) issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the requirement that school food authorities participating in the Food and Nutrition Service National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program must develop and clearly communicate a meal charge policy. While this requirement applies to public schools participating in the federal program, all public schools in New Jersey are required to comply with the requirements of the state law regarding unpaid school meal charges, making policy development in this area critical for all boards.

Parents and Guardians Must Be Notified In New Jersey, schools may not deny a student a school breakfast or lunch without first notifying the parents/guardians. The state law, N.J.S.A. 18A:33-21 requires the district to contact the student’s parent or guardian to provide notice of the arrearage and give the parent or guardian a period of ten school days to pay the amount due. If full payment is not made, the district is then required to contact the student’s parent or guardian again to provide notice that school breakfast or school lunch, as applicable, shall not be served to the student beginning one week from the date of the second notice unless payment is made in full.

The district may, but is not required to, deny the meal and may extend credit or provide an alternate meal. The USDA “…encourages schools to be flexible in this area, particularly with young children and children with disabilities who may be unable to take full responsibility for their money. The USDA encourages schools to provide some credit for these children or serve an alternate meal. In some cases, the PTA or other school organization may establish a fund to pay for children who forget or lose their money. At a minimum, schools should ensure that parents are fully aware of the policy adopted for children who do not have their meal money.”

An alternate meal is any meal served to a student that is different from the day’s advertised meal. Alternate meals are most often provided to students who have documented medical meal substitutions, or to students who have forgotten their meal payment. Providing alternate meals to children who cannot pay can be problematic, particularly if the child has selected a meal and it is taken away and replaced with the alternate meal due to inability to pay. Media reports on schools across the country shaming students whose meal charges are in arrears are not infrequent. These reports include stories of lunches being taken from students and thrown away, students’ hands being stamped and schools publicly announcing the names of students who have incurred debt.

Recognizing that students should not be shamed for meal arrears and that parents and guardians should be held accountable (not the student), new legislation in the Assembly, A- 4904, was introduced June 1, 2017. It proposes the following amendment to N.J.S.A. 18A:33-21:

A school district shall not:

  • Publicly identify or stigmatize a student who cannot pay for a school breakfast or a school lunch or whose school breakfast or school lunch bill is in arrears by, for example, requiring that the student wear a wristband or hand stamp; or
  • Require a student who cannot pay for a school breakfast or a school lunch or whose school breakfast or school lunch bill is in arrears to do chores or other work to pay for the school breakfast or school lunch.
  • A school district shall direct communications about a student’s school breakfast or school lunch bill being in arrears to the parent or guardian, and not the student. Nothing in this subsection shall prohibit a school district from sending a student home with a letter addressed to a parent or guardian.

In developing policy each board should consider at a minimum the following, when determining the best approach for their community:

  • The school community demographics, ages of the students and individual health factors and medical conditions impacted by food intake (or lack thereof);
  • The percentage of students participating in federally funded food programs;
  • Budgetary resources and revenues available to offset the costs associated with providing credit and/or alternate meals; and
  • Other funding steams that are available or can be developed.

The NJSBA sample policy provides three options for the board to consider taking into account the age of the students and the provision of an alternate meal. The board also has the discretion to revise the options or create their own conditions.

Leadership that is responsible and compassionate is challenging. Denying a child a meal can be controversial even when that child is fully responsible for chronically forgetting his or her meal or meal money. Policy that is thoughtful, encourages parents/guardians to communicate problems and provides notification to the parents/guardians of meal arrears can go far in protecting the district from being represented in the media or perceived by the community as being a heartless Dickens villain.

The NJSBA critical policy 3542.2 School Meal Program Arrears may be downloaded.

To have the policy emailed or for help developing policy language to suit your needs do not hesitate to contact NJSBA Policy Services.