DALLAS – At least four of the largest school districts in North Texas have practices that shame students in the lunch line.
So-called shaming happens when a student doesn't have money in his or her account to pay for a meal and a cafeteria worker takes away their tray of food, disposing of it in front of other children, and replacing it with a lesser substitute like a sandwich.
"I think a lot of people would be shocked. They're just not aware of it," said Kelvin Holt, 54, a teacher in Copperas Cove.
He spent more than 32 years in the U.S. Army as a medic, mechanic and a helicopter pilot. After retiring a few years ago, he became a teacher in Central Texas and witnessed such shaming happen with a 4-year-old girl in a Pre-K class he taught.
"She got to the cashier, they scanned her PIN and the cashier said this to the 4-year-old: 'You have no money.' [The cashier] reached down, picked up her tray, took the milk off the tray, dumped the food, and sent the child away crying. My jaw dropped. I felt like I was just kicked in the gut,” explained Holt. "This is breakfast now, so her last meal might have been 12 or 13 hours ago. And who knows what that meal consisted of. Insult to injury is the fact that they dump the food in the presence of the child. The message that sends to a child is 'I care about my bottom line. I don't care about you or your feelings or your hunger.'"
School districts say no child goes hungry. At issue is how the alternative meal is handled.
All districts are required by law to have grace periods for students whose accounts run out of money. But no guidelines exist to ensure that the child will not be stigmatized with lower-quality food or being singled out in the lunch line.
"This is a problem adults need to handle. Not children. We don't want children to be hungry and go without food during the day,” said State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto.
She introduced House Bill 2159 which amends the law to require all school districts to have a two-week grace period. And during that period, continue allowing students with an unpaid balance to select a hot lunch of their choice.
Giddings’ legislation also requires school districts to make at least three attempts to notify the parent of the delinquent account and give them two weeks to get caught up.
New Mexico outlawed lunch shaming this month, according to the New York Times. Now, Giddings wants Texas to stop stigmatizing students by giving them an alternative meal.
The DeSoto Democrat said she hopes her bill reduces the number of children in Texas schools going without lunch.
Holt applauds Giddings’ legislation, but said the grace period should be two months rather than two weeks.
"Two weeks is too short of time frame, but two weeks is not quite long enough to respond to a medical emergency, a loss of a job, a cut in a paycheck, a reduction in hours, those life events that happen. We need to be flexible. Children do not need to be punished," he explained.
House Bill 2159 gets its first committee hearing on Thursday.
"If it doesn't happen with this legislature, I'll be back in 2019. I'll be back in '21. Whatever it takes because treating kids this way is wrong. It's bullying. And right now, it's state-sponsored bullying because the laws allow it in Texas,” said Holt.
He started a Change.org petition last year which has more than 109,000 signatures now. Holt also started a Facebook Page called No School Meals Denied to raise awareness and build support for changing state law.
No one knows how often Texas schools shame students in the lunch line or, more importantly, the impact that has on a child.
WFAA contacted 15 of the biggest school districts in North Texas. A third have practices that shame students, a third do not, and the last third did not respond.
See where your district ranks below:
DISTRICTS WHICH “SHAME” STUDENTS:
Denton ISD: After a student has charged the combined price of a breakfast meal and a lunch meal, the student will be offered a courtesy lunch consisting of a toasted cheese sandwich, a fruit serving, a vegetable serving, and a carton of milk.
Frisco ISD: “We won't take the tray or the food from the student. It is a parent responsibility to manage their child's finances. We will work to ensure that parent is aware their child cannot go through the line until the parent takes care of their child's account,” said Chris Moore, Frisco ISD. “Currently, our students may charge a meal if their balance will not cover the cost of the meal. Elementary and middle school students have a charge limit equivalent to the cost of 2 lunches and a breakfast. High School Students may charge one meal. Our charge policy only covers meals. Students are not allowed to charge a la carte or ‘extra’ items or snack items. Our cashiers are trained to let students know when the balance is getting low and we have a process in place to call families with students who have low or negative balances. Our café supervisors work closely with the school staff when they see a student or family who is struggling to pay. Our principals are very supportive and have stepped in to help families fill out meal applications. We have many schools with parents, community organizations or PTA’s that have set up accounts to help students with negative balances. Our goal is to never take a meal away from a child.”
Fort Worth ISD: Full meals are not cut off for elementary and middle school students, including high schools that are co-located with middle schools. This already costs FWISD about $150,000 annually. In traditional high schools that are not completely free, FWISD gives the students a week to tell their parents about the issue before moving to alternative lunches. The high school students get two breakfasts and up to three lunches before they meet the debt limit. At that point, if they get a tray through the line and are over their debt limit then they are handed the alternate meal and the tray is taken. The food items are thrown away if they are not pre-wrapped and protected from germs. FWISD has 86 CEP (community eligibility program) schools where there are universal free meals.
“We strive to provide meals for all those in need. Letters are sent home to parents with information on the debts and how to apply for free and reduced meals,” said Clint Bond, FWISD spokesman. “If Rep. Giddings proposal comes with money it would have a welcome positive impact. If it is another unfunded mandate, then the impact would be negative on our budget.”
Irving ISD: IISD offers a substitute meal for students who run out of money. Staff makes sure every child has a meal option every day. There is a grace period.
Richardson ISD: Students get two "debit" meals, meaning they can continue through the checkout and eat their meal without having to pay right then. After the second time, a student with no funds in their account or cash is provided an alternate meal. The alternate meal for breakfast is cereal and milk and for lunch it’s a turkey and cheese sandwich with a juice. Unwrapped or unsealed items are set aside and disposed of later. They are not re-used for health and safety reasons. Parents and students are both notified if their funds are running low or depleted. A note goes home to the parents to remind them to send money. Parents who pay online are notified when funds are low through the email address they provide when they set up the account. That would be in addition to the note home. If it’s an ongoing issue for a student, an administrator will call the parent directly to talk about options, including signing up for free or reduced meals if finances are a concern. Under no scenario does a student who wants to eat go without a meal. RISD alerts parents prior to accounts becoming low and again each day that no funds are available. Free and reduced meal information is provided (and explained) to each parent upon enrollment, and reminder information also goes out to parents each year before the federal free and reduced meal grace period expires. Giddings’ bill would impact RISD in that it could increase the number debit meals a student is provided before the alternate meal is provided instead.
DISTRICTS WHICH DO NOT “SHAME” STUDENTS:
Arlington ISD: Students who already have a tray would not have anything removed. They would be able to charge the meal to their account. Charges are taken out of any future payments. Cafeteria managers work with campus administrators to contact the parent and assist with students who are without money for lunch on a regular basis. Food & Nutrition Services check to see if the household has applied for meal benefits. If not, we contact the parent to see if we can assist them with the application process, if applicable. The Food & Nutrition Services website has a link for an online payment system, PayPams, that allows parents to use credit or debit cards. Parents can view all charges on their child’s account without any payments. In addition, courtesy meals are provided at no cost to the parent for those students without lunch money. AISD offers a choice of a cheese sandwich and milk or two vegetables of their choice, bread of the day and milk. AISD said it tries to resolve the issue first, but we provide the courtesy meals as long as necessary so that students eat.
Dallas ISD: Not affected since all student meals are provided for free because so many students qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Garland ISD: No student food is taken and no alternative meals are provided. The student’s account is charged for the price of the meal, and students are given a note that lets parents know that the student has no funds in the account. The grace period lasts until the account is paid. “We want students to have meals and to eat without disruption or issues that could complicate their day at school or their focus on learning,” said Mida Milligan, Garland ISD.
Grand Prairie ISD: The student keeps the meal even if they have a negative balance. Nothing is taken away and no alternative meal is provided. GPISD said it does not believe HB 2159 will affect it.
Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD: Food is not taken from children. No meal is modified to an alternative selection.
Plano ISD: Food is never taken from a student. An alternative hot meal is provided. It sometimes results in a negative balance on campuses. Plano ISD has had people in the community step in to pay off negative balances.
Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD:
McKinney ISD:Mesquite ISD: