Unintended consequences

When Denver stopped lunch-shaming, debt from unpaid meals skyrocketed

PHOTO: David Buffington | Getty Images

After the Denver schools chief made a high-profile announcement last August guaranteeing a full meal to students whether or not they had the money to pay, many advocates cheered the end of so-called “lunch-shaming” in the 92,000-student district.

Then came an unpleasant surprise: Debt from unpaid lunches soared, rising to $356,000 from $13,000 the year before.

Denver’s exploding meal debt — amounting to roughly 900 unpaid lunches every school day of the year — illustrates the balancing act districts nationwide face amid growing public support for policies prohibiting lunch-shaming. Such shaming often involves giving students who can’t pay small, alternative meals, putting stickers or stamps on them to remind their parents to pay, or even throwing out their meals.

In the last couple years, a growing number of districts nationwide have established policies to curb lunch-shaming. Some states, including New York, Iowa, and New Mexico, have passed statewide legislation with the same goals. The idea behind such measures is to free students from the burden of debt they have no power to pay and ensure they don’t go hungry at school. But with school districts obligated to pay for the meals, food service leaders are often left scrambling to cover mounting costs.

The school lunch debt is one reason Denver district officials quietly introduced snacks such as Doritos and Rice Krispies Treats in elementary school cafeteria lines late this past winter. The new additions, seen as unhealthy by some parents, helped generate around $41,000 in new revenue for the nutrition services department.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, said she hasn’t yet heard of another district with a debt increase the size of Denver’s following the introduction of a lunch-shaming prevention policy. But she said it’s an issue the group, which represents school food service employees, plans to watch closely.

“In many districts, allowing all kids to automatically get a free meal …. can turn into a real financial challenge for the program,” she said, noting that it can take away the incentive for parents to fill out the free and reduced-price meal application.

Nearly one-third of the district’s lunch debt last year came from families who were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, but signed up part-way into the school year, after their children had already received free school lunches. The federal government covers lunch costs for students eligible for free lunches and part of the cost for students who qualify for reduced-price lunches. For elementary school students in Colorado (and starting next year for middle-schoolers), the state covers the remaining cost of reduced-price lunches.

Another 68 percent of Denver families with unpaid meal debt don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Still, district officials said it’s impossible to determine how many of those families would qualify for subsidized lunches if they applied, how many struggle financially but just miss the cut-off for eligibility, and how many can afford to pay for school lunches but choose not to.

Theresa Peña, regional coordinator for outreach and engagement in Denver’s nutrition services department, supports the district’s new lunch-shaming prevention policy, which ended the practice of giving students with lunch debt cheese sandwiches or graham crackers and milk.

Still, district officials didn’t expect the ballooning lunch debt, which at one point was projected to hit a half-million dollars, she said.

Peña said the district is stepping up efforts to get every family to fill out the free- and reduced-price meal application for next year — an extra challenge in the current political climate in which some immigrant families fear leaving a paper trail.

Last year, in addition to adding new revenue-generating snacks in elementary schools, the district tried to recoup the debt by making weekly robocalls to parents, working with principals to do outreach to families, and in some cases sending letters home with students.

“We made a pretty hard push,” Peña said. “It did make an impact, but not as great an impact as we had hoped.”

A national problem

Most districts nationwide accrue some debt for unpaid meals.

A 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association found that three-quarters of school districts rack up unpaid meal debt, up slightly from 71 percent two years before.

In Denver, the amount of lunch debt ranges widely by school, with some accruing less than $50 and others accruing thousands. Omar D. Blair Charter School had the highest lunch debt among Denver schools last year at $11,500. Meanwhile, Florida Pitt Waller, Joe Shoemaker Elementary, Thomas Jefferson High School, and Cheltenham Elementary all reported lunch debts between $2,500 and $5,000.

At Shoemaker, where two-thirds of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Kitchen Manager Chris Juarez said he believes much of the school’s $4,000 in lunch debt came from families who would have qualified for subsidized lunches but didn’t apply. Sometimes, he said, families don’t realize they have to re-submit their application each year; this fall, he plans to meet with returning families — in addition to new families — to emphasize that fact.

Other parents don’t realize they have to add to the form if a related child joins their household, he said. And language barriers may still be a problem, even though the form is available in many languages. In addition, some may worry that filling out the form means their immigration status can be tracked. A 2017 Denver school board resolution specified that the district does not collect or maintain any information on students’ immigration status.

Juarez suspects only a small percentage of Shoemaker families can afford to pay for their children’s lunches, but choose not to.

Shoemaker Principal Christine Fleming, said her top priority is making sure kids get to eat lunch, no matter what. She sees non-payment as a “parent issue,” and said, “I don’t want 5-, 6-, 7- year olds to carry that burden.”

Fleming said she’s always reserved some money in a special “principal’s account” to cover the cost of unpaid lunches, including in 2017–18, when she set aside a few hundred dollars.

Previously, that practice was common across the district, Peña said, but once the lunch-shaming policy took effect, “a lot of them said, ‘Zero out my principal account. I’m not going to do that anymore.’”

In 2016–17, when the district’s lunch debt was just $13,000, an online fundraising campaign and a contribution from a private donor covered the outstanding balance. But not this year.

A district grant of $100,000 paid off lunch debt from students who were eventually eligible for free or reduced-price lunch last school year but whose parents may not have signed up right away. Peña said the district has not finalized how the remaining $256,000 will be paid, and has until June 30 to make a decision.

Is it junk food?

Before this year, elementary schools in Denver sold some snacks — officially called a la carte items — in their cafeterias. These included turkey sticks, granola bars, popcorn, string cheese, and yogurt.

Peña said the district decided to add more a la carte items in February, a few months after district food service supervisors visited nearby districts, including Jeffco and Cherry Creek, and learned that “a la carte sales were a big deal” there.

The additions include more than a half-dozen kinds of chips, Rice Krispies Treats, gummy fruit snacks, and pistachios. All of the items — some of which are slightly reformulated versions of the same products sold on grocery store shelves — adhere to federal rules governing school snacks. Parents were not informed of the new snack offerings when they were introduced.

Susan Scovell, who has two children at Bradley International School in southeast Denver and works part-time as a personal chef, said of the new snacks, “It’s pretty much total junk food.”

She got wind of them when her second-grade daughter began mentioning that friends routinely bought Doritos and Cheetos at lunch time.

“It took me months to figure out this was going on,” she said. “Most parents really had no idea.”

Scovell said the new snacks stand in stark contrast to the district’s efforts to emphasize scratch cooking and other kinds of healthy eating initiatives, such as the week-long fruit- and vegetable-tasting event at Bradley this spring.

Peña, who said the district plans to communicate better about the snack options this coming year, said parents can prevent their children from buying certain snacks. To do so, they need to contact the school’s kitchen manager and request that a note be added to the student’s school meal account citing the restriction. She conceded that the process may not be obvious or easy for all parents, and said the department will look to address that.

Peña also said that principals or kitchen managers have the option to limit the sale of a la carte snacks at their schools. For example, they can choose not to sell certain items, or restrict the sale of a la carte items to the last 15 minutes of the lunch period or to certain days of the week.

Denver is hardly unique in offering a la carte snacks at elementary schools.

Other large Colorado districts, including Douglas County, Jeffco, and Cherry Creek, also offer such items to grade school students. All three districts allow parents to limit or block their children’s snack purchases.

Carol Muller, state director of Colorado Action for Healthy Kids, which promotes nutrition and exercise initiatives in schools, said one of the top concerns she hears from parents across Colorado is about a la carte snacks. At the same time, she understands the financial pressures school cafeterias are under.

“It’s a really tough issue for everyone involved, including us,” she said. “We certainly support food service staff. We don’t want to add a bigger burden to them, but on the other hand, as a parent, I don’t find all the snacks acceptable either.”

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”

Free for All

A benefit of free lunch for all: fewer students get repeatedly suspended, new study suggests

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Students eat lunch at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy in Detroit.

Allowing an entire school to eat for free, instead of restricting free lunch to students whose families fill out forms, can reduce the number of students who get suspended multiple times, according to a new study.

It’s the latest evidence that universal meal programs, which have also been linked to higher test scores and better health in other research, help students.

“There are many potential benefits to providing universal free meals in high-poverty schools, including achievement impacts … and of course whatever reduction in kids going hungry comes with it,” said Nora Gordon of Georgetown University, who wrote the paper along with Krista Ruffini at the University of California at Berkeley.

The study, which was released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research and has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on the federal free lunch program’s “community eligibility” initiative, which allowed schools where many students qualified for free or reduced price lunch to provide the free meal to all students. This was designed to reduce the stigma of receiving the meals among low-income students, streamline paperwork, and ensure no student went hungry. (Previous research has shown that in California, for instance, 13 percent of students who were eligible for subsidized lunch didn’t receive it for one reason or another.)

Gordon and Ruffini took advantage of the fact the the program was rolled out slowly, starting in 2012. This allowed the researchers to compare the suspension rates of the initial schools that took up the program to those in states that adopted it later. The paper also tries to account for the fact that at this time, many states and districts were already making efforts to reduce exclusionary discipline.

The study estimates that in elementary school, the chances of being suspended multiple times fell by about a third of a percentage point in elementary school and half a percentage point in middle school. Those aren’t big changes, but only a small share of students receive multiple suspensions in the first place.

Gordon and Ruffini say community eligibility may have had broader effects because it helped students nutritionally and also because it improved “the social climate of the school by reducing the stigma associated with free meals.”

There was some evidence that making entire schools eligible for free lunch reduced in-school suspensions, too, but the program didn’t seem to reduce the number of students who were suspended just once or have any effect on suspensions in high school.

One limit of the study is that it relies on federal civil rights data, which only reports the share of a school’s students suspended once and the share suspended more than once. This data has also been shown to be inaccurate in some cases, as schools may input wrong information. The results also vary somewhat based on the group of schools that the researchers focus on.

But the finding is consistent with a handful of other studies pointing to benefits of community eligibility, including the preliminary data from other papers that have yet to be published. It’s also in line with other research showing that the timing of receiving food stamp benefits — and therefore, when families may be most able to eat well — affects poor students’ test scores and behavior.  

The community eligibility program has continued to grow. Still, in the 2016–17 school year nearly half of eligible schools didn’t participate.