Concern about ‘lunch shaming’ leads Shawnee Mission to consider guaranteeing full meal to every student

Shawnee Mission is considering allowing students to get full lunch meals even after they’ve gone over the limit on their accounts.

Concerns about the social impact of making students who don’t have enough credit in their lunch accounts eat a different meal than their classmates is leading the Shawnee Mission School District to consider a change in policy.

But big questions about the effect such a change would have on the district’s bottom line linger.

“Right now we are treating the child differently from the other children in the lunch line,” said Laura Guy. “And to me that appears that we are using that child as a leverage to try to get the parents to put money in. And that’s what troubles me.”

Under current policy, elementary and middle school students may charge up to three meals over the credit they have in their account. After that, the students are given a toasted cheese sandwich and milk instead of a full meal until the account balance is paid off. The cheese sandwich and milk are given to the students at no cost to them.

High school students are not allowed to charge any meals to their account. They also receive a cheese sandwich and milk when they don’t have enough balance in their account to pay for a full meal.

Students enrolled in the free lunch program based on their family’s income always have access to a full meal, but students enrolled in the reduced lunch programs are subject to the cheese sandwich and milk policy.

The potential for “lunch shaming” — making students stand out for a lack of financial resources in the lunch line – has some members of the board interested in a shift away from the status quo. The proposed policy chance, which came up for a first reading Monday, would “ensure that all students will be provided a full regular meal, regardless of the balance in their account.”

Laura Guy, the SM West area representative on the board, said she thought that under current policy students are being subjected to an uncomfortable situation based on their parents’ behavior.

“The change here is how do we treat the child when the parent has not put enough money in the account,” Guy said. “And right now we are treating the child differently from the other children in the lunch line. And to me that appears that we are using that child as a leverage to try to get the parents to put money in. And that’s what troubles me.”

But other districts that have made similar changes have seen the financial burden on the district grow exponentially. When Denver guaranteed that all students would have access to a full meal regardless of whether they had enough money in their accounts, the district’s debt from unpaid lunches rose from $13,000 to $365,000 in a single year.

The last few years, Shawnee Mission has seen its liability for unpaid lunch debts under the existing policy come in around $10,000 per year. Food services director Nancy Coughenour told the board Monday that her department had little way to predict what effect the proposed policy change would have on unpaid lunch debt. Lunch debts are ultimately paid out of the district’s general fund.

Sara Goodburn, the SM North representative on the board, inquired as to whether the district could tweak its existing policy without fully guaranteeing a full meal to students whose accounts are behind, perhaps increasing the number of meals they can charge before they would start receiving the cheese sandwich and milk.

“I just wondered if there’s some middle ground in there between this and not doing it at all,” Goodburn said. “I’m concerned fiscally about this.”

Rick Atha, the assistant superintendent for operational support, told the board that the key to any policy change would be vigilance in following up with parents when lunch accounts get low or below zero. He also said the district could explore additional communications to families who have trouble paying about enrollment in free-and-reduced lunch programs.

The board will take up the proposed policy change for a second reading at its next meeting.