When I began researching this topic, the many reports available on the subject drove me to expect a certain result at the local level, here in Bibb County. What I found, though, changed the course of this article completely.

School lunch “shaming” occurs across the country, and with more press coverage on the topic, the more school administrators recoil at its mention, with good reason. We’ve all heard the stories of lunchroom workers writing on a child’s arm “I need lunch money” for the parents to see, or of a tray taken and thrown in the garbage because the child had no money. These things happen. Can you imagine being that child and walking back to class with it basically written on your arm for all your friends to see: “I have no money.”

Kids can be mean. Children make fun of each other for countless reasons. It’s all part of growing up and developing a “thick skin,” right? What if a kid is made fun of because they’re poor? Does that help with their thick skin? More to the point, is the kid poor, or is it the parents who are struggling financially? Right. Kids aren’t the breadwinners in their families. So why are children forced to suffer ridicule by peers for something that is out of their control? When a child’s school lunch account is negative, at a point something must give. The debt must be cleared somehow. But, must this financial problem be a burden on the mental and emotional stability of the child caught between the school system and the parents’ bank account? Often elementary children don’t even understand the concept of a negative account and suffer confusion and embarrassment when told their account is out of money.

All this above is what I expected to be writing about in this article. But it isn’t. It’s not what I found to be the case in Bibb County schools.

“Teachers and Principals are always paying for kids’ meals out of their own pockets. I know I did it all the time,” Ms. Holifield said. “You never want to see a child going without.”

“We’ve certainly not had kids written on and the like,” Superintendent Duane McGee said. Of kids ridiculing each other he added, “We don’t really see kids bullying each other about that here. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, but usually we see kids helping each other out instead. Some kids will go back through the line and get a couple ‘a la carte’ items for a friend or give them something off their tray that they don’t want. They share and take care of each other.” But why is it so different here than what seems to be the norm elsewhere?

First, some base information on how school lunch finances work.

Prices for meals are set by a formula calculation from the U.S.D.A. (U.S. Department of Agriculture) and is completely out of the control of local decision makers. Currently Bibb County Schools meal prices are $1.25 for breakfast, and $2.75 for lunch. Because of the way the formula works, these prices have tended to trend upward by approximately $.10 each year, according to Janiece Holifield, Director of the Child Nutrition Program (CNP) at Bibb County Schools. If a child is on the reduced-price meal program, these become $.30 and $.40 respectively.

If a child’s household already receives food assistance such as SNAP, they are automatically eligible for free lunches. Several other possible situations may also qualify a child to receive free or reduced meals at school, including meeting income eligibility guidelines, which are based on household size and income.

A family of four with a household income less than $2,720 per month would qualify for all the children in that household to receive free meals at school. If household income falls between $2,720 and $3,870 per month, all children qualify for reduced meals.

What if the household income is $3,880 per month? Full price must be paid for each meal at school. This means instead of the parent(s) spending $15 per month per child for reduced price meals at school, they spend approximately $86 per month per child, not counting any ‘a la carte’ add-ons. If you’re a single parent with three children, that’s roughly $210 per month of expenses you just picked up for getting a raise. That could be a used car payment, or it could be your whole power bill. It could be the difference in putting money into a retirement account every month and not being able to save money for new tires next year.

Parents making just a little over the limit fall into a gap that can make finances difficult, and money tight, even though government charts say they make plenty enough to not need assistance anymore. So, what happens when a surprise expense comes up, and suddenly putting more money into their children’s school lunch account is temporarily impossible? That’s when problems sometimes arise.

“Sometimes parents don’t believe it when their child’s account is out of money and they’ll get really mad when we notify them it’s negative.”

When a child’s meal account hits zero funds, what happens next varies wildly across the nation, depending on school system policy. For systems that receive U.S.D.A. funding, such as Bibb County Schools, a foundational policy mandates that children up to and including 3rd grade, plus all grades of special needs students, shall never be denied a meal. Children in 4th through 12th grades, however, could be denied a meal depending on the local system’s policy.

In Bibb the policy in place says the student is allowed to “charge” three meals, which basically means sending their account negative until funds are added. When an account goes negative the parents are notified immediately of the occurrence. It used to be that students in the negative would receive a substitute meal of a cold sandwich, a fruit, and milk instead of the regular lunch.

“We’ve found that someone stopping to prepare that substitute meal is less efficient than just giving the child a regular tray,” said Janiece Holifield, “so we stopped doing that. Now we just let them get a regular meal. But we can’t allow A La Carte items to be charged.”

“A La Carte” is one way a child’s account can get in trouble in a hurry. These are extras, such as additional milk, bottled water, ice cream, chips, an extra pizza or burger, etc., that could all be added by the child of their own accord and must be paid for out of their account. As a parent of a middle school boy, I can testify to the pubescent male’s vacuum-cleaner abyss of a stomach that can easily devour $20+ per week of “extras” at the school lunch line. Purchase of these extras is out of the parents’ or lunchroom’s control. However, these not being required by federal law for a child to receive, means they cannot be purchased if an account is negative. This has at times resulted in these types of items being taken away from students attempting to purchase them while knowing their account was negative. These also do not fall under what is covered by free or reduced-price accounts. Free and reduced only applies to the base meal offered.

Bibb County Schools CNP utilizes the PayPams system as well, which allows parents to install an app on their phone to check account balances and add money as needed. “We’ve tried to make it as painless as possible,” Superintendent McGee said of PayPams. “Sometimes parents don’t believe it when their child’s account is out of money and they’ll get really mad when we notify them it’s negative.” PayPams allows parents to set up their own account balance notifications at whatever level, as well as look at account history to see when they added however much money. Using this system could help reduce the occurrence of accidental bad debt. To learn more and download PayPams click here.

Charged meals, or negative meal accounts, are bad debt. This bad debt can put a burden on a school’s funds since someone must pay for the food regardless. Recently, a group of employees at a company in Madison, Wisconsin raised $25,000 to pay off their local school system’s outstanding lunch balances. That system has over 1,500 students, but most of them do not qualify for free or reduced lunches. Some systems can accumulate tens of thousands of dollars per year in bad debt associated with unpaid student meal accounts. This trend is a concern to school systems and communities alike, with many groups popping up to assist and help pay for the debts that parents who fall into the gap can have trouble paying themselves.

Comparatively, Bibb County Schools have over 3,200 students, and a relatively meager total $1,544.34 bad debt for the entire school system as of January 15. That could be, however, because so many students in the Bibb system are on free or reduced. It seems that a community such as ours could organize businesses and individuals to raise money enough to help take care of this bad debt for families in the gap that are having trouble keeping up.

“Ideally this is something the P.T.O. would do, and we’ve had a few of them [in the system] attempt it, but nothing seems to stick,” Mr. McGee said.

“Just before Christmas we had a parent in Woodstock donate $100 toward negative meal accounts at Woodstock elementary,” Ms. Holifield said. Each school is responsible for collecting its own unpaid debts, and some schools are clearly better at it than others. As of January 15, the outstanding balances at each school were:

  • West Blocton Elementary: $20.46
  • Randolph Elementary: $41.95
  • Woodstock Elementary: $81.20
  • West Blocton Middle: $148.02
  • Bibb County High: $167.99
  • West Blocton High: $206.90
  • Brent Elementary: $348.90
  • Centreville Middle: $528.92

To be sure, it is commendable that Bibb County Schools policy focuses on making sure all children have sufficient nutrition and don’t go hungry. Balancing the need and want to be sure children aren’t hungry with the need to reduce food waste and spending can be quite challenging. But educators and CNP employees do their best to help out kids and parents alike, and often don’t stick strictly to the three charged meals limit.

“Teachers and Principals are always paying for kids’ meals out of their own pockets. I know I did it all the time,” Ms. Holifield said. “You never want to see a child going without.”

The "Share Table" at Woodstock Elementary was custom built by a teacher's husband to make it more fun for the kids to use. (Photo credit Woodstock Elementary CNP on Facebook.)
The “Share Table” at Woodstock Elementary was custom built by a teacher’s husband to make it more fun for the kids to use. (Photo credit Woodstock Elementary CNP on Facebook.)

For a more organized approach to the problem, “We also have ‘share tables’ where kids can put fruits and pre-packaged items they don’t want, and anyone can get anything from those tables,” she said. “It really helps reduce waste, too.”

“Lots of times items that are left on the share table at the end of the day get quietly put in backpacks to go home with kids we know really need it,” she added. “We don’t advertise that, but we do that.”

A program called Community Eligibility would enable all students in the system to be on free meals regardless of income. The requirements for this program just don’t balance well for Bibb County Schools, however. “We’ve looked into it, but it just wouldn’t be [financially] efficient for our system,” Ms. Holifiend said. The rules are vast, but basically it requires over 40% of all students to be eligible for free meals, but also requires a high percentage of funding to come from the local general fund, which is not a strong suit for Bibb schools. In other words, while some individual schools in the system meet the requirements with a high percentage of students on free meals, as a system overall, we seem on the cusp of the program making financial sense because of the low level of local funding in the school system versus the high student population.

“There’s also the issue that high school students often won’t turn in the free or reduced forms because of the stigma associated with it. So, we consistently see a reduction in percentage of students in the program when we look at high school versus middle and elementary. Teenagers lots of times just won’t eat instead of being on free lunch. That throws off our numbers when we look at trying to get on the Community Eligibility Program.” – Janiece Holifield

What does all this add up to? Going back to the earlier question, why do we not see the lunch shaming and peer bullying over lunches in our system the same way other systems have across the country? Perhaps it’s because so many of our students are in the same boat, and they recognize that. They know that it could just as easily be them running out of money as the kid at the next table.

And that is where my expectation of what I would be writing became so wrong as I learned from Mr. McGee and Ms. Holifiend what the situation really is in Bibb County. It’s not our students ridiculing each other, nor is it our school staff even accidentally embarrassing the students that are the problems with Bibb County lunch debt. It’s simply the debt itself, due to the low average household income in our county.

One thing that I’ve observed as a parent is that this generation of kids have big hearts. Bullying may still be a problem, but it seems more the exception than the rule nowadays. These kids truly care for and accept each other as they are, and they help each other in all sorts of situations. If that is something our generation of parents wants to take credit for instilling into our offspring, it seems to me that we should try to prove it by example and help our fellow parents who are having trouble in these cases.

How many local businesses could spare $100 to the cause? How many churches could do the same? How many parents could afford to send $5, or even $1? These relatively small amounts add up and could quickly cover the entirety of the outstanding meal account debt in Bibb County Schools. Who will step up to start the effort? Will it be you?

SOURCEThe Bibb Voice
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A father, creative professional, and an alumnus of Bibb County High School, Jeremy has found his way back to Centreville after many years away. He studied Finance and Economics at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and almost a decade ago left the "normal" business world for audio and video production. A freelance writer, photographer, sound engineer, and film and video producer/director/editor, his work has appeared online for Southern Living, People, Health, Food & Wine, Sports Illustrated, Cooking Light, It's a Southern Thing, and This Is Alabama, as well as for independent musicians and filmmakers across Alabama.