Northwest Iowa — With the start of school in just a few days, some changes are in store regarding school lunches.
The Iowa Legislature passed, and Governor Reynolds signed — a new law to end the “food shaming” some say is happening in a few Iowa schools.
Many lawmakers said it’s not the fault of the children if their parents failed to pay for lunch at school.
The law says that the school can’t publicly identify students with lunch debt. In bigger cities, this has taken the form of making students with lunch debt sit at different tables, stamping hands or requiring students to wear wristbands, putting students’ names on a poster, requiring them to do chores to get a lunch, and not allowing students with lunch debt to participate in extracurricular or after-school activities. The law bans all of these practices in Iowa.
When the bill was being discussed earlier this year, legislators said that they have found that if a child is hungry, it affects their ability to learn. Some have said that there are children who, just by standing in a lunch line — not knowing if they’ll be embarrassed — causes them so much anxiety that they avoid lunch altogether.
Many legislators said one key provision may help parents who’ve fallen behind on the school lunch tab for their children. Under the old state law, Iowa school officials could only notify parents once a year about enrolling their child in the free or reduced lunch program. Now the law requires them to provide information twice a year and if the student owes for five or more meals.
The law still allows schools to provide an “alternative” lunch to students who are in debt, but that same type of lunch has to be made available to anyone who asks — to avoid identifying a student as having accrued meal debt.
The law focuses only on students. School districts are still able to collect meal debt by any legal means.
The law also allows school districts to set up a special account to which people or community organizations can donate to pay down the meal debt of students in the district.
Also, in an effort to prevent food waste, school districts are encouraged by the law to place the pay station before the area where the meal is received to prevent dumping of food that can’t be paid for.
School districts are making their policies public. For instance, we received a document outlining the details of the hot lunch program at Sibley-Ocheyedan.
Among the highlights there:
All meal purchases are to be prepaid before meal service begins. When their balance reaches $0.00 a student may charge no more than $15.00 to this account. When an account reaches this limit, an alternative meal will be offered to the student. They tell us that their student information system automatically notifies parents of low or negative nutrition account balances.
They also say that the policy and supporting information regarding meal charges shall be provided in writing to all households at or before the start of each school year; students and families who transfer into the district, at time of transfer; and all staff responsible for enforcing any aspect of the policy.
As is the case in the majority of the school districts in northwest Iowa, Free and Reduced Lunch Applications are available in each of Sibley-Ocheyedan’s offices, the central office, and the district’s website. This form may be completed at any time during the school year. Sibley-Ocheyedan officials tell us that means a patron may complete the application whenever there is a change of circumstances.