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Aug 10, 2017 2:07 PM

Unpaid lunches leave NH school district in $15K debt; prompts possible 'lunch shaming' policy

LONDONDERRY — Unpaid lunch balances is leaving one school district thousands of dollars in debt, but a proposed policy could possibly lead to lunch shaming.

Peter Curro, the Londonderry School District's business administrator, said that the unpaid debt for school lunches and breakfasts for the past school year is just over $15,000. This is about $10,000 more than the year before and about $12,500 more than two years ago.

Now, school administrators are considering a new policy that could prevent eighth- or 12th-graders with a negative balance from participating in some non-academic or non-curriculum end-of-the-school-year activities such as graduation, senior week and the eighth-grade dance.

Curro said that taking away various activities for students who either do not pay their debt in full or who do not get pardoned by an administrator "avoids any student embarrassment in the presence of other students." But this comes during a time of school lunch shaming, where school districts around the country are receiving negative attention for singling out children who are unable to pay for their meals.

The United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service encourages school districts to not single-out students, as over three-fourths of school districts in America have students with school lunch debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. They suggest privately communicating with parents, which Curro said the Londonderry School District already does.

Curro believes that students are realizing there are no repercussions associated with not paying back their debt, which accumulates during their time at the school district, because overdue balances from students who either graduate from Londonderry High School or who transfer to another school district are being covered by the operating budget. This year, they covered around $450 out of the $15,000 for students who graduated or transferred. That means students still in the district owe more than $14,000.

"We feel the word is getting out that you 'don't have to pay for lunch' and the school district will provide a full lunch no matter what the student balance is," Curro wrote in a memo to Superintendent Scott Laliberte.

Out of the $15,000, around $2,200 of the debt came from students who qualified for free or reduced lunches. They gained this debt before being accepted into the free or reduced lunch program, Curro said.

He does not think the majority of the debt comes from students embarrassed about their financial situation at home, as dining services works closely with parents that qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Curro plans on drafting up a policy and bringing it to the school board in September. The school district opted out of the National School Lunch Program in 2015, which would have required them to have a policy written and communicated to staff and parents by July 1.

"What we're looking for is to have a policy or procedure in place to teach kids that they need to be financially responsible and for us to be responsible to the taxpayers," Laliberte said.

With Curro's proposed policy, all students, including those who accrued a debt before being place in the free or reduced lunch program, would have to pay or get pardoned in order to attend the end-of-the-school-year activities.

Some alternatives to Curro's proposal exist, such as giving middle and high school students an alternate meal, also known as an auxiliary meal, when students reach a certain negative balance. This meal typically consists of a SunButter and jelly sandwich, a milk and fruit.

Another alternative is to let the debt climb and to receive funds from the operating budget to pay for it; an unfavorable option considering the large jump in debt over the years.

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