Alisa Roman, nutrition director for Lewiston Public Schools, stands in the Connors Elementary cafeteria on Friday. Connors Elementary has the highest rate of participation in the subsidized school lunch program. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

A “food-shaming” law that went into effect this school year is creating hardships for some local districts.

Lunch debt is escalating because the law, enacted by the Maine Legislature in April 2019, prohibits schools from denying meals to children whose parents can’t or don’t pay.

In many districts, that debt will be paid by taxpayers.

This has not been an issue in Lewiston because the district’s poverty rate qualifies it for a federal program that allows it to offer free meals to all students.

“But it has been a huge game-changer in some districts,” said Alisa Roman, nutrition director for Lewiston Public Schools.

“It’s a little bit of an onion to peel back, depending on the community,” Roman said. “The debt can go to taxpayers. It’s a very big lose-lose situation.”

Even though Lewiston provides free meals for all students, the district does have a small amount of debt from earlier years with no recourse to collect it, she said.

And if the district loses its eligibility for free meals, “we would have a lot of kids who couldn’t pay,” she said. “It can be pretty scary pretty quick.”

Roman, president-elect of the Maine Nutrition Association, said she has heard from “close neighboring districts” that their lunch debt has risen significantly this year.

One of those neighboring districts is School Administrative District 52, based in Turner. Nutrition Director David Roberts says it’s a question of demographics.

“We don’t have affluent families and we don’t have federal funding to cushion the blow,” he said Thursday.

Lunch debt has risen by $18,000 this year, he said, adding that the district had in previous years been left with about $200 per year in bad debt.

The current amount is not necessarily bad debt, Roberts said. It becomes bad debt when a student graduates or leaves the district.

He said local taxpayers in the past have picked up between 5% and 7% of the cost of the meal program. This year he will ask taxpayers to fund 10% because of the drop in revenue.

Before the law was passed, the district had a “finely tuned policy” that allowed it to stop serving students who owed more than $25 after grade seven. Another consequence was that students who owed money at the end of their senior years were not allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony, Roberts said.

Under the new law, students cannot be stigmatized, identified or punished in any way.

That leaves districts with few options, said Walter Beesley, director of nutrition for the Maine Department of Education.

“The DOE did offer suggestions, including small-claims court, collection agencies or seeking donations,” Beesley said. “There is no silver bullet yet.”

Although nutrition program costs are reimbursed by the federal government, it cannot absorb bad debt. It is up to the local district to collect it.

Beesley said he has heard from school nutrition directors who say outstanding debt is increasing.

“This is an issue all across the country,” Beesley said. “Everyone agrees we should be feeding children.”

Finding a way to do that without shaming students is where the new law comes in.

Auburn schools had offered an alternative meal to elementary-level pupils who couldn’t or didn’t pay for the full lunch, Superintendent Katy Grondin said Friday. But under the law, that is now considered shaming.

She said the district had made adjustments to its program before the law went into effect and is not seeing a debt increase over prior years. Current debt is at $9,860, according to Nutrition Director Chris Piercey.

“We’ve always had lunch debt,” Grondin said. “We do everything possible to correct the debt. Each year we try to recover it.”

The district offers payment plans and works with families to find out what is causing the hardship, she said. “We seek to understand what the issues may be. We don’t want any student to go hungry.”

Once a student leaves the district, the debt must be paid by the school department’s general fund, which is mostly taxpayer funded, either local or state, she said.

In the Mt. Blue Regional School District based in Farmington, lunch debt has been accumulating for 10 years, Superintendent Tina Meserve said.

For about a decade, the district has not denied meals to students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, she said. That has resulted in $54,000 in lunch debt.

Only grades nine through 12 have been affected by the new law, Meserve said.

“Just the four grades at the high school have added $7,000 to our debt in a short period of time,” she said, nearly doubling from $7,337 in December 2018 to $14,366 in December 2019.

Prior to the passing of the new law, Mt. Blue High School students could charge up to $25 worth of meals (two weeks of lunches or six days of breakfast and lunch), Meserve said.

“Once they reached the $25 limit, staff discreetly directed that student to the student food pantry,” she said. “Of course, we cannot do that now. We also can’t talk to students about their debt.”

Debt that cannot be recovered is passed along to taxpayers, she said.

According to a Maine School Management Association survey presented to the Legislature in 2019, 18 school districts reported a total of more than $330,000 in unpaid food bills.

One of those districts, the Lisbon School Department, showed meal debt of more than $14,550.

Superintendent Richard Green said Thursday that Lisbon schools have seen an increase this year, but a “really generous” donation from a local business owner has reduced the overall debt by quite a bit, Green said.

He said legislators had suggested school districts create contingency funds to cover the cost of the debt going forward.

“We have built in money to cover the cost,” he said, adding that local taxpayers would foot the bill.

SAD 52’s Roberts, outgoing president of the Maine Nutrition Association, said he cautioned against the food-shaming law when it was proposed. A conversation about funding nutrition programs to provide universal free meals for students is “long overdue,” he said. “We need to pass it eyes wide open.”

He called the law an unfunded state mandate.

“We’re asked to run our programs as a business, regardless of payment. Both can’t happen simultaneously,” he said.

He said he does not want to deny children.

“I care about this a lot. I care passionately, but this food service model is a challenge for most of us.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.