The Montgomery County Board of Education voted recently to change how it collects money from students who fall behind on their cafeteria accounts. Thankfully, the board responded to our advocacy by backing down from a proposed plan that would have stigmatized children with unpaid lunch fees by swapping out the hot entrées on a child’s lunch tray for cold sandwiches, or “alternate meals.” But the board will continue its current policy of debt collection, which can involve repeatedly calling or writing to the families of such students to seek payment. Sometimes the students must carry letters home in their backpacks, perpetuating the shame and isolation of having meal debt. It’s time for a more supportive and equitable funding system for school meals, one that doesn’t involve chasing after small debts, but instead works towards eliminating the problem of unpaid school meals forever.
The time is ripe for a complete overhaul of Montgomery County Public School’s meal payment system. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the outstanding debt of more than $400,000 has become “uncollectable” by the federal government’s standards. This means that when school starts again this fall, all MCPS students will begin the year with a clean slate. This is a good start, but it won’t prevent meal debt from financially burdening MCPS families again. That’s why Healthy School Food Maryland is calling on MCPS to make permanent the system it put in place during the pandemic: provide school meals at no charge to all students.
To keep this system in place, many hoped the federal government would continue funding healthy school meals for all, but Congress failed to extend funding for universal school meals. Maryland could have stepped up with funding for our state’s public schools, but unfortunately, in April a bill to keep school meals free, at least for the next school year, failed in the General Assembly.
Currently MCPS has no backup plan, and will default to charging students for lunch according to the old tiered eligibility system. Unless the county acts quickly, in July an estimated 10,000-plus MCPS families will fall back into a debt cycle, simply because they can’t afford full price school meals.
According to the Montgomery County Food Council, food insecurity rates across the county during the pandemic rose to 10.9% and the rate of childhood food insecurity is now at 13.4%. Without school meals, the need still must be met and the demand on other community providers such as food banks and other hunger organizations will increase. School meals are among the most effective and efficient anti-hunger programs and are proven to reduce food insecurity and improve economic equity. School meals for all are essential for advancing racial equity and food justice. In pre-pandemic MCPS, the school meal system was flawed and inequitable. Students and their parents were deterred by an onerous application process, and struggled with the cost of meals, and the shame of accumulating school meal debt. The students who braved the lunch line anyway may have done so because their gnawing feelings of hunger were too powerful to ignore.
Since MCPS students returned to school buildings last September, almost 10,000 more kids have been participating in the free school meals program daily. Their participation alone has brought over $8 million in federal revenue to the county. Pre-pandemic, one in 10 MCPS students carried some amount of school meal debt district-wide. To ensure that all kids can eat and focus on learning, and so cafeteria debts don’t skyrocket again, MCPS needs to spend what amounts to less than one-tenth of one percentage point of its annual $2.7 billion budget. That does not include the $252 million in the latest round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding specifically granted by Congress to aid in pandemic recovery. In Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight’s own words, MCPS has planned extensively to use its pandemic funding to rebuild in an innovative way. So, what’s the plan to rebuild the school meal program? Only one plan makes sense: communicate to every family that Montgomery County is committed to promoting equity in the school system by maintaining healthy school meals for all.
Support for Healthy School Meals for All Montgomery is building due to Healthy School Food Maryland’s campaign to raise awareness. Won’t you join us by signing our petition and letting the County Council and MCPS know that you want them to work together for the well-being of all our kids?
Fania Yangarber is the executive director of Healthy School Food Maryland®, a parent and student group committed to advocate for equitable improvements to school food policy that promotes the health and well-being of students; to help build the capacity of families to be active in the school community; and to increase transparency about the food environment in Montgomery County Public Schools.
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