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Updated 06/06/2024 - KRPS 89.9 FM is broadcasting at 100% power

As school lunch debt climbs in Kansas, advocates push to make sure kids don't go hungry at school

First-graders eat lunch at Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary School in Wichita. The Wichita district serves regular meals to students regardless of any unpaid balances in their account.
Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
First-graders eat lunch at Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary School in Wichita. The Wichita district serves regular meals to students regardless of any unpaid balances in their account.

The total lunch debt students have accumulated in Kansas climbed to more than $23 million last year. Many school districts have policies that single out kids when they can’t afford to pay, and a new report shows that can hurt families, even if those policies aren’t strictly enforced.

WICHITA, Kansas — As first-graders file through the cafeteria line at Earhart Elementary School in Wichita, they pick up peaches, broccoli and cartons of milk.

Lunch supervisor Rachel Smith helps them with their trays and makes quick notes on her tablet to log names with lunches. You can’t tell — nor does Smith ever say — which students qualify for free lunch or which might have negative balances in their school meal accounts.

“We can’t just deny them a lunch,” Smith says. “They automatically get a lunch. And then if they get behind, we’ll just send out a notification to the parents, and the parents will take care of it when they have the chance.”

Wichita schools serve regular meals to students regardless of their debt or ability to pay. But that’s not the case everywhere in Kansas — at least not according to rules on the books.

A recent report by Kansas Appleseed looked at school lunch policies across the state to see how schools treat children and families who have meal debt. In many districts, kids can be singled out if their parents don’t pay the bill.

About two-thirds of Kansas districts have policies that say students with overdue accounts get an alternative meal or snack. It’s sometimes a cheese or peanut butter sandwich; in other districts, just a granola bar or crackers. Some districts prohibit kids with certain levels of debt from participating in after-school activities.

At least nine districts have policies that say certain levels of debt can even trigger a call to the state Department of Children and Families to report abuse or neglect.

“A neighboring district could have a great policy, but your district is potentially reporting kids to DCF,” said Martha Terhaar, one of the authors of the Kansas Appleseed report. “That disparity is something that affects kids.”

DCF officials said they don’t track whether or how many abuse reports come from school districts, but few if any likely stem from unpaid meal balances.

Terhaar said punitive policies cause added stress for students and parents who are already struggling with rising costs. Even if they’re enforced sparingly or not at all, she said, the policies are a problem.

“It’s written down. It’s still threatening,” she said. “It’s still limiting kids’ access to meals and putting a lot of fear around access to food, which should just be a basic necessity.”

Administrative assistant Rachel Smith logs lunches as students go through the line at Earhart Elementary School in Wichita.
Suzanne Perez
/
KMUW
Administrative assistant Rachel Smith logs lunches as students go through the line at Earhart Elementary School in Wichita.

In Phillipsburg, a school district of about 560 students north of Hays, the official lunch policy says children who owe more than $20 have to pay cash for meals or bring a sack lunch from home.

If the student doesn’t bring a lunch, he or she “will be provided a sack lunch consisting of a cold cheese sandwich, fruit, vegetable, and milk,” the policy says. “The sack lunch will be available for pickup in the office before lunch.”

Phillipsburg Superintendent Mike Gower said that may be the rule on the books, but it’s not the common practice. School officials from several other Kansas districts agreed: Children who want a school lunch always get one.

“We’ve never turned anybody away, and we never will,” Gower said.

“You have to have something that says, ‘Hey, pay your bill.’ And so we just stay after them. And then if they don’t pay, then somehow their bill gets magically paid.”

Student meal debt in Kansas is over $23 million this year — about six times what districts reported in 2019, according to the Kansas Appleseed report. Districts usually cover shortfalls out of their general fund or through donations. About 40% of districts turn unpaid debt over to collection agencies or courts.

Kelly Chanay, director of child nutrition and wellness for the Kansas Department of Education, said statewide training in recent years has focused on eliminating meal shaming.

“They really are working hard not to overtly identify children that don’t have money in their account, and they’re focusing primarily on those parents and guardians responsible for providing the funds,” she said.

“We’ll be doing some training prior to the start of next school year to really stress the importance of all schools updating those meal charge policies.”

For two years during the COVID pandemic, federal subsidies allowed all students to eat free at school, regardless of whether they met income guidelines for free meals. Since then, nine states have passed laws to keep school meals free for everyone. Last fall, Colorado put the question to voters, who overwhelmingly said yes.

This school year in Kansas, Topeka is the first district to offer free lunches to all students. Wichita serves free breakfast to everyone, using a federal program for districts with high numbers of low-income students.

Anti-hunger advocates said the state could use some of its $2 billion surplus to offer reduced-price lunches across the state. Kansas Appleseed also recommends ending debt collection policies and changing ones that could shame or punish students for unpaid meal balances.

“It is the duty of our public school system to make sure that kids are educated,” Terhaar said. “But they can’t be educated if they’re not fed.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.