The Harrisonville School District, under scrutiny for what some call using shaming tactics to encourage meal payments, had recovered all of its meal program debt before adopting its procedures earlier this year.
“It was paid off by Feb. 1,” said Assistant Superintendent Dan Erholtz by phone Thursday morning. Feb. 1 was the date the new procedures were implemented.
“It was paid off by community donations, district contributions, community efforts … and parent payments in a couple weeks,” added Jill Filer, a district spokeswoman.
The debt in the meal program had been in excess of $20,000 before the contributions and payments were made. As of mid-May, Erholtz said the debt has increased again to about $1,600.
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The procedures require students who owe $11 or more to receive an alternate meal and stand at the back of the lunch line.
When asked if school officials were discussing ending the procedures, Erholtz said the district intends to keep them. “It’s the procedure that’s keeping the debt down,” he said. “Parents are being more aware of it.”
Students who owe more than $40 could have their accounts blocked, according to stipulations of the meal procedures, which were adopted by the Harrisonville Board of Education in January. Erholtz said in January that there was a slight chance a student would go without a meal should their account drop to minus-$40 or below. He said in that event, the district would partner with a social worker and entreat local nonprofits to work out an alternative meal plan.
Tiffany Limback said her niece, whom she helps care for, was given a slip Monday. Limback shared the slip with The Star, showing her niece was directed to receive a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich or a cheese sandwich and to be placed at the end of the line.
“She is 9 (years old),” Limback said. “It’s not like she’s in charge of the family finances.”
Limback said she made her niece a bologna sandwich to take to school, and she was angry when the slip included a handwritten note saying: “Money still owed even if bringing lunch.”
“I have bologna at the house but what I don’t have is a $20 to send to you right now,” Limback said.
Erholtz and Filer said students receiving the alternate meal are directed to the end of the line because students line up based on the meal they will choose, not as a form of punishment.
They added students receive fruit, veggies and a milk with their sandwiches.
The slip notifying teachers which students owe on their meal accounts was meant as an internal communication, Erholtz and Filer said.
“That should never have been seen by parent or student eyes,” Filer said. “That was a mistake that we’ve corrected now.”
Filer and Erholtz defended the district against criticism that students from low-income families are being shamed. Filer cited programs run through or affiliated with the district that direct food, books, shoes, clothing and supplies to students from low-income families.
“We are not heartless,” Erholtz said. “We work with (students and their families).”
Filer said she does not see giving alternate meals as a punishment.
“(Some) kids choose to eat that as an option,” she said.
Still, some parents were critical of a program that they said single out students.
“The other kids, they’re not stupid. They know what’s going on, and kids are mean,” said Leslie Lindsay, a parent of two boys in the district. “If your friends find out and are making fun of you for not having money for lunch … it’s devastating for any kid.”
Christian Cordon-Cano is a co-founder of the School Lunch Fairy, a Florida-based organization that aims to raise money for school lunch debts. The New York Times reported on the program, started by Christian and another high school junior.
Christian, in an email to The Star, said the organization has raised more than $7,000 and has recently made donations to Florida school districts. The organization aims to expand to help districts in other cities around the country.
“We are hoping to find ways to inspire people in Missouri to either donate towards this cause or to be vocal about lunch shaming and the need for universal free meals,” Christian wrote.