What happens when parents can’t pay outstanding debts on school lunch? Denver Public Schools says, “Let them eat graham crackers and milk.”
According to DPS food-services policy, if a student paying for school lunch or receiving reduced-rate lunches cannot make payments, the student can receive up to $6 worth of lunch for free. A lunch costs $2 for those in kindergarten through fifth grade, $2.25 for grades six through eight, and $2.75 for grades nine through twelve. In other words, elementary-school students can afford three lunches before the debt policy kicks in, while middle- and high-schoolers only get two.
Once the six-dollar limit is surpassed, students begin to receive an “alternate meal”: a cheese sandwich and milk. Mmmmm. And if three alternate meals have been served and parents/guardians still have not paid off outstanding meal debts? Students will be given a “healthy snack of white milk and graham crackers,” as stated on DPS’s website.
Graham crackers? Healthy? If this policy sounds insane or made up, amazingly, it isn’t. It's plainly stated under DPS's Meal Prices and Charge Policy webpage. The only exception is for students who receive free lunches.
A screenshot of the school lunch debt rule on DPS's website.
Food & Nutrition Services / dpsk12.org
Furthermore, under DPS policy, outstanding debts carry over between school years and between schools within the district. So in August, students in debt will start the school year receiving nothing more than graham crackers and milk as their mid-day sustenance.
But Theresa Peña, regional coordinator of outreach and engagement for DPS’s Food and Nutrition Services, says the problem is quite nuanced. Peña explains that DPS food services follow federal regulations, and those rules prohibit students who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch from receiving unlimited meals. “If people [who should be] aren’t paying for their meals,” says Peña, the federal government “considers it theft.”
Peña knows that means that many students run the risk of going without lunch, which no school district wants. So DPS came up with the practice of providing “alternate meals” that don’t count as full meals but “are better than nothing” — hence the graham crackers and milk.
Peña explains that schools try very hard to reach parents, but that a combination of factors often leads to students accruing debt. In fact, she believes that most families who can’t pay for meals either qualify for free or reduced lunch and haven’t applied for it, or are part of the “working poor” and make just enough not to qualify. Peña even suggests that many undocumented families don’t apply for or have dropped out of free or reduced-lunch programs as a result of the heightened dangers faced by immigrant communities.
“We’re doing the best we can given the limitations, but...we need to do more,” she says.
Others still view this practice as one that seems to punish and shame students for something they aren’t responsible for. KidsGiving365, a Littleton-based nonprofit that encourages young students to get involved in community service, decided to start a crowdfunding campaign to help pay off the $11,000 of total debt from the 2016-17 school year and raise awareness about the policy.
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“Kids need fuel to learn, and they are being denied hot lunches because of something that is not the child’s fault,” says KidsGiving365 president and co-founder Deborah Sherman. Sherman notes that graham crackers and milk is a “tell-tale meal” in school, and she has heard accounts of many kids actually skipping lunch for fear of being teased because of the social stigma associated with the snack. The campaign has raised just under $10,000, and Sherman says the money will go directly to DPS. Sherman notes that the attention generated by the campaign has really “struck a nerve with people,” who are baffled by the rule, and that the campaign has seen a wide range of contributions, even of $10 or less from actual students.
The policy has encouraged other organizations to get involved in the campaign. On August 5, Cattivella Wood Fired Italian Restaurant, led by chef Elise Wiggins, will host a cooking class that parents can attend with their children; the class is $25 per child and $50 per adult, with all proceeds going to the crowdfunding campaign. Then, on August 8, the restaurant will donate 10 percent of the profits from the evening’s meals.
Notes Sherman, “We want to have the debt paid off before the first day of school.”