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.”

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting. 

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”