Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
Cold cheese sandwiches are off the menu at Albuquerque Public Schools.
The district has crafted new policies to ban “school lunch shaming” and guarantee all students a hot meal, even if they are behind on payments.
On Wednesday, the APS board policy committee voted 4-0 to approve a policy to comply with the Hunger Free Students Bill of Rights Act, which prohibits schools from publicly identifying or stigmatizing children with unpaid cafeteria bills.
The first-of-its-kind state law – Senate Bill 374, sponsored by Senate majority whip Michael Padilla and Sen. Linda Lopez, both Albuquerque Democrats – took effect this summer and generated media attention across the country.
APS administrators said Wednesday that they support SB 374, but have some concerns about the cost.
Last spring, the district’s unpaid meal tab was about $35,000.
The new APS policy explicitly states that the district “shall not deny a student food at any mealtime or engage in shaming of the student due to the students’ inability to pay for food served in an Albuquerque Public Schools cafeteria.”
Previously, students with unpaid accounts were singled out – they received a cheese sandwich in place of the hot food.
Now, every child in New Mexico will get the same meal.
Carrie Robin Brunder, APS director of government affairs and policy, said giving every student a hot meal is “the right thing to do,” but she thinks SB 374 is an “unfunded mandate” because districts did not receive more state money to cover the expense.
Under the new policy, the district allows for up to $15 dollars in charges on lunch accounts “to accommodate students who have forgotten their meal money or who are awaiting final approval of their application for federally subsidized meals.”
Administrators are still debating how to handle the debts.
Over 70 percent of APS students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch and, in some cases, parents simply haven’t completed the application form.
Other families are carrying a balance even though they should be able to cover their child’s lunch.
The district is considering sending out letters stating that “legal action may occur if debt is not paid within 30 days,” according to proposed procedures presented Wednesday.
Board member Candy Patterson said she “would hate to see any parent prosecuted for a school lunch.”
But Brunder said there could be situations when it is appropriate for the district to attempt to get repayment.
“The state has put us in a position where we basically, as local entities, have to make a choice … you either try to collect that unpaid debt from the parents or you make a decision as a local entity to just start covering the cost of lunch,” Brunder said.
Scott Elder, chief operations officer, also stressed that APS is between “a rock and a hard place.”
“We have to have a balanced budget,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is no free lunch. We do get billed for it.”
APS administrators will continue working on the school lunch debt procedures next week. District procedures – which put policies into action – do not require a board vote.