Summer lunchtime at Sharpstein

Itzel Salazar, 18, hands out lunches at Sharpstein Elementary School on Wednesday while Jocelyn Sotelo, 18, handles the paperwork. The Summer Food Service Program for Children in Walla Walla provides free lunch to anyone 18 and younger. The program is funded with a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to the city of Walla Walla. Next month students return to school cafeterias, and districts around the Valley are preparing to deal with problems of unpaid meal debt by families whose children are not eligible for free lunches.

COLLEGE PLACE — Marcia Daschofsky retired in June from 30 years of school food service, the last several as a breakfast checkout scanner for the city’s School District.

Her job was to charge student meals against their accounts, money deposited by families to pay for school meals. Usually it was a simple transaction.

But when a child standing in front of her had no money on the books — and three prior unpaid meal charges — that was another story. That student would be sent to the school office to call home and ask for food to be brought to them, which might or might not get delivered.

More than just her job, this “lunch lady” said she believed it was her mission to give students the best start to their day with a joke, a smile and a nutritious meal. Seeing a child denied breakfast, or lunch, was about more than Daschofsky could take.

“It really bothers me,” she said she told the School Board before retiring.

“We always want our kids fed, because I don’t think they can go into the classroom and learn with best efforts if they are hungry,” she said. “It’s what we are there for, to help kids focus on their learning.”

Now, with a provision in a 1980 U.S. Department of Agriculture program being adopted by the School District, no child at Davis Elementary School, John Sager Middle School or College Place High School will be denied a meal due to an inability to pay. At least for the next four years.

Provision 2 in the National School Lunch Program allows free meals for all students if the majority of students a school come from poor families. The provision was designed to drastically reduce application and tracking paperwork for parents and schools.

College Place schools Superintendent Tim Payne said the district enrolls about 1,300 student, with roughly 60 percent from families at or below the federal poverty level.

Although there is no strict rule about the percentage of low-income students a school district needs to qualify for Provision 2, the Washington state guidelines suggest at least 70 percent, said Donna Parsons, director of Child Nutriton Services for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

This year will be the first of four years of Provision 2 implementation in College Place. As federally required, College Place students’ families, whether they qualify for free or reduced-price meals, will be asked to fill out a standard application. Over the following three years the district will not be required to make new family income determinations, Payne said. If the district’s population remains stable, the USDA may grant additional four-year extensions.

Provision 2 seems like the right answer for now, Payne noted. Like other districts around the nation, College Place schools have struggled with “lunch shaming” when students are denied school meals because of their family’s inability to pay.

How such situations are handled vary widely by district and community. National news reports tell of students having food trays taken away, sometimes to be emptied into the trash in sight of everyone. In some schools there is a roll call of students who have meal debt; others may have a special stamp placed on their meal card or, at one school, their arm.

In many cases students with too much meal debt are given a plain sandwich or other food not on the regular menu.

According to a New York Times article in April, a 2014 USDA report found nearly half of all districts used some form of shaming to compel parents to pay bills. Nearly half of those schools withheld hot meals and handed out sandwiches, and 3 percent denied food entirely.

College Place has been part of that 3 percent in some cases, Payne said. While official district policy said “no food” to students in cases of meal debt, he suspected kitchen staff didn’t always follow through.

In some school districts, the Times reported, employees have been fired for giving students free food, or have quit over the their school debt policy.  

It’s not as simple as it may seem to go ahead and feed kids who arrive with no lunch or lunch money, Payne said after a recent board meeting.

The National School Lunch Program, for example, audits school districts, which are held accountable for how federal food dollars are used.

“Balancing compassion and accountability is a real deal,” he said.

College Place uses similar resolution techniques other districts do — contacting errant families with automated and human phone calls.

Still, not feeding children was not going over well with anyone, Payne said, adding that he’s seen elementary kids cry at realizing they would not be allowed to eat.

“It’s a horrible scenario.”

When a proposal to adopt the Provision 2 program was presented to the School Board, it passed unanimously. As a group, Payne said, the board members are not strong supporters of social programs but feeding kids became an exception to the rule. Also some of federal taxes residents pay are returned to the district via the program.

Last year the district’s food service bill came to $34,000, he noted. This year it’s budgeted at $124,000.

“I’m anticipating having to add to food service jobs,” he said. “We’re going to be feeding more kids. What better way to use local tax dollars?”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.