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School Lunch Debt Grows, Debt Does Not Prevent Students from Eating

In March 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the “Hungry-Free Students’ Bill of Rights,” also called ESHB 2610, into law. It went into effect in June 2018. The law prohibits “lunch shaming,” or in other words, for school staff to publicly identify a child under the age of 13 whose parents haven’t paid for their school lunches. That includes giving them an alternate meal.

The law also eliminates caps previously placed on negative meal balances. The result is the accumulation of higher meal debts across Kent School District (KSD) and Washington State.

In Kent School District, the total historical lunch debt to date exceeds $190,000. This includes over $150,000 for the 2019-20 school year alone. KSD does not deny a student lunch, serve an alternate lunch, or send a family to collections regardless of a family’s ability to pay or lunch debt balance.

How can families pay for meals in Kent School District?

Kent School District participates in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Breakfast and lunch are available at no cost or at a reduced price for qualifying students.

Families must reapply each school year for free and reduced-price meals. Students must submit an application every school year, even those who participated in the program in the previous school year. The application must be submitted within 30 days of the start of the new school year to avoid a gap in benefits, that deadline for the 2019-20 school year is October 11.

All students pay for meals using an individual account identified by their Kent School District (KSD) student identification number. This system allows for accurate accounting and ensures anonymity for students who receive reduced-price meals.

Money may be paid into a student’s account in advance and then meal costs are deducted from the account. KSD accepts payments for meals online, as well as cash and check payments at each school.

Previous to the 2019-20 school year, Kent School District offered breakfast and lunch at no charge to five schools through an option called the Community Eligibility Provision.

What is CEP? Why is it no longer offered?

With the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (Act), operators of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) are able to take advantage of a new universal meal service option, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which was phased in over several years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is now available nationwide. CEP permits eligible schools to provide meal service to all students at no charge, regardless of economic status.

A school may elect for CEP if at least 40 percent of its students are “directly certified,” or otherwise identified for free meals through means other than household applications (for example, students directly certified through SNAP). To account for low-income families not reflected in the direct certification data, USDA sets meal reimbursement levels for CEP schools by multiplying the percentage of students identified through the direct certification data by a multiplier established in the Act.

Kent School District’s decision to discontinue participation in the CEP in five schools at the end of the 2018-19 school year, was tied to competing regulations for determining funding for schools under the Title I and Learning Assistance Program (LAP) regulations. KSD has been in communication with federal and OSPI staff since February 2019 about the connections and requirements of the three programs. Principals were aware of the shift away from CEP in the spring of 2019, and our decision was communicated to the schools and families impacted. For the impacted families in these, and all KSD schools, if they meet the federal requirements for no-cost or reduced-cost meals by completing the application, they can continue to receive meals at low or no cost.

School staff, central office staff and volunteers have been available to support families with the free and reduced applications available online and on paper in ten languages at school open houses and during regular school office hours.

Who qualifies for free or reduced meals?

What is the cost of meals is Kent School District?

What is served in the school meal program?

While the issue of school lunch debt has increasingly made headlines across the country, Kent School District remains committed to providing meals for all students.

“The outreach effort by district leaders, teachers and volunteers to help families complete their applications this year has been tremendous. We still need help, the efforts to help families understand the importance of completing a meal application every year by community organizations who serve our students would go a long way.” Chief Accountability Officer, Dr. Jewelle Harmon shared.

KSD has several new strategies in place this school year to better address the rising lunch debt, especially to reduce the debt associated with families who qualify for reduced-price meals, but may not be able to pay.

School meals do matter. Any teacher will tell you that well-nourished children are ready to learn and generally do better in class. When we give our students healthy food choices and regular physical activity at school, they learn healthier habits for life. The concern in KSD is not about if we continue feeding our students, or what we offer them, but how can we work together as a community to ensure that as a district we are leveraging the federal assistance offered to those qualified for free or reduced-price meals to ensure we can continue to provide nutritious meals for all hungry children while balancing the demands of maintaining the financial viability of our school operations.

Kent School District has received and does accept donations to eliminate student lunch debt in accordance with Board Policy. For more information about supporting the elimination of student lunch debt, please contact Director of Nutrition Service, Teresa Fields, Teresa.Fields@kent.k12.wa.us.