School lunch debt a problem for Portland students, schools

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PORTLAND — Even though more than half of students in the Portland Public Schools qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch, the schools are still carrying a significant load when it comes to unpaid school meal debt.

The School Department is facing a $6,000 shortfall and at the end of the past fiscal year last June, it was forced to cover $20,000 in unpaid meals, according to Food Services Director Jane McLucas.

That’s one reason a recent donation by a local dentist was so welcome.

In December, Dr. Kathryn Horutz wrote a check to cover the entire unpaid meal balance for students at Ocean Avenue Elementary School.

Horutz declined to be interviewed, but Beverly Stevens, principal at Ocean Avenue, said the check for $256 “wiped out the debt for 35 students. (Our) school is deeply grateful for her generosity.”

Even as school districts across Maine struggle with balancing the books when it comes to student meals, the Legislature is weighing a new bill that would require them to provide lunch even if a student doesn’t have the money in their account.

In theory, McLucas said she supports the bill, whose sponsors include state Sens. Brownie Carson, D-Brunswick, and Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, along with State Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough.

“No one wants to shame a child” by refusing them lunch or giving them an alternate meal, McLucas said, but “somebody has to pay for these meals.”

The Portland schools charge paying students $2.70 per day for a school lunch at the elementary level and $2.95 at both the middle and high school level, she said.

Under a new new policy implemented at the start of this academic year, McLucas said, all students – whether they have paid or not – now get the same lunch, “but there are consequences.”

McLucas said the state caps what school districts can charge for meals at $3 and said her department “works very hard to have (the amount charged) offset” the overall costs of purchasing ingredients.

“But it’s tough,” she said, especially when each meal must include five separate components and school districts across the state are trying to include more fresh and locally grown ingredients, which are often more expensive.

Each meal, McLucas said, must include a protein, a grain, a fruit, a vegetable and milk, and students must choose at least three items.

“I feel like (food services) has become a collection agency,” McLucas said this week about trying to get families to pay what’s owed for school meals.

She said the district has now turned to robocalls, which go out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Those calls are followed by emails and letters. If a family still doesn’t pay, McLucas has to refer them to the Finance Department for further action.

McLucas said food services, as well as individual school staff, tries to inform families about the chance to qualify for a free or reduced lunch, as well as the opportunity to re-apply throughout the school year, but every year the district still has to combat the issue of unpaid meals.

Stevens said in the past Portland schools would cut off families if they failed to pay for five lunches in a row, and the school also used to feed kids an alternate lunch if they had racked up school meal debt.

But, she said, that’s no longer the case and what Portland now does is what the new statewide bill would require of all school districts.

Under LD 1684, “An Act Forbidding Food Shaming, Food Denial and the Use of Food as Discipline Involving Any Child in Maine’s Public Schools,” schools could not refuse a meal to a student for non-payment or as a disciplinary action.

In a story published on Jan. 25, the Portland Press Herald said “the bill is aimed at ending so-called ‘food shaming,’ when a student is given an alternate meal or denied food if their lunch money account dips below a certain amount.”

Walter Beesley, the child nutrition director for the state Education Department, told the newspaper there is currently more than $350,000 in overdrawn student lunch accounts statewide.

LD 1684 would also prevent schools from “openly identify(ing) or otherwise stigmatiz(ing) a student who cannot pay for a meal or who has payments due.” And also requires that any communication about meal debt be made only to parents or guardians and not to the student directly.

According to the Press Herald, New Mexico last year was the first state to pass a law banning food shaming, followed by Texas and California.

McLucas, said Horutz, was not the only one who made a recent donation to the Portland Public Schools to cover student meal debt.

She called the action “a great thing” that “absolutely helps kids who are struggling,” but also implied that such donations are not the ultimate solution.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

While lawmakers debate whether students carrying meal debt ought to be served, school districts in Maine are making school lunches more nutritious and offering more locally grown produce, which makes meals more expensive.