The No Man’s Land of Childhood Hunger

World War I soldiers slogging through No Man's Land in Flanders. Photo by Frank Hurley/ Collection database of the Australian War Memorial.

Fourth in a series

It is official policy in Anne Arundel County public schools to shame students because their parents are unable or unwilling to pay for a school lunch.

The children who are being shamed have themselves done nothing wrong. Their problem is that they are not eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch because their parent’s income exceeds federal guidelines. But their parents may be too poor to pay for a school lunch.

The students have blundered into a kind of No Man’s Land of policies and regulations that leaves children in Maryland schools ill-fed and abandoned. Lunch shaming is merely the final indignity.

At the root of the problem is the broken way the government measures poverty. To be eligible for a free or reduced school lunch the child’s family can’t earn more than 130% of the federal poverty level. For a family of three that means the upper limit is approximately $39,000.

But experts say that in Anne Arundel County, that family needs to earn $69,000 to have a living wage.

It is these two numbers that form the boundaries of No Man’s Land where families are trapped. At one end help is out of reach and at the other end the money they need to feed themselves is at best a distant horizon.

The way lunch shaming works in Anne Arundel County’s No Man’s Land is fairly typical.

Jodi Risse, the supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, says it is school policy that in any one school year a student can only get five meals without paying.

Risse says the school tries to work with the student’s family once there is unpaid debt.

“We reach out to that family to say, ‘you know, if you are unable to pay for the meals, here is the way that you could secure a free or reduced-price meal.’”

But what if the family is unable to pay the $1.50 for breakfast or approximately $3 for lunch?

“We offer them a fruit or vegetable,” Risse said. “Some schools still do a sandwich. Like it could be a cheese sandwich or it’s something like an alternate meal.”

Risse said she didn’t know how many children are staring at a sandwich and a piece of fruit while the children around them are eating a regular meal. But the school district’s own numbers show that lunch debt is a large and growing problem.

‘It’s not the kid’s fault’

In the 2014 school year, when children were first able to charge a meal, the unpaid debt at the end of that school year totaled $11,200. Last year that number nearly tripled to $31,000. And as of October of 2019 Risse said school lunch debt was already at $23,415, with the school year less than a third over.

Dr. George Arlotto, the AACPS school superintendent, was asked through his communications officer to comment on the lunch shaming policy. Despite repeated phone calls over several weeks, no one from AACPS responded.

Michelle Corkadel, the president of the Board of Education, said she couldn’t make any comment on the AACPS lunch shaming policy until she had more information on the reason why there was lunch debt.

When Anne Palmer, a program director for Food Communities and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, was read the school policy she said it was definitely an example of lunch shaming.

“It’s not the kid’s fault,” Palmer said. “Who are we punishing here? Like what is the point of that? It’s just bad policy. It just calls out the stigma of being poor.”

Benjamin Orr, executive director of the Maryland Center on Economic Policy, a progressive think tank, also branded it as lunch shaming and criticized AACPS for the way it was handling the issue of lunch debt.

Benjamin Orr, executive director of the Maryland Center on Economic Policy.

“If the school district decides that conversations need to happen around school lunch debt, they don’t need to happen in the cafeteria line,” Orr said. “They need to happen directly with parents or with administrators or with philanthropy stepping in. Those conversations should never happen with the child. The child should never be ashamed. The child should never not receive food.”

Mounting debt

Because the federal government establishes poverty measures, school lunch debt and the associated lunch shaming is a problem both across the state and nationwide.

A study by Maryland Hunger Solutions last year found that some districts in the state were carrying almost $100,000 in school lunch debt.

And the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a nonprofit composed of school food-service professionals, has been monitoring how many school districts nationwide have school lunch debt.

When SNA polled school districts in 2014 it found three-quarters of them were carrying some school lunch debt. Similar surveys in 2016 and 2018 found the exact same thing.

But more importantly, the size of that debt has been growing. In 2014 the median lunch debt for school districts nationwide was approximately $2,000. Four years later it had jumped 70 percent to $3,400.

Because by law school districts cannot dip into federal school lunch money to pay off these debts, some districts have come up with grotesque variations on lunch shaming:

  • When parents fell behind on paying off their child’s lunch debt, an Alabama school started sending the children home with “I need lunch money” stamped on their forearm;
  • In Illinois a child was barred from any school events until the lunch debt was paid;
  • A Pennsylvania school district sent letters to parents warning them that the district might go to court to have their children put into foster care if their school lunch debt was not paid.

While school lunch debt is one path into No Man’s Land, it is not the only road. Children can be denied food because their school district has chosen not to adopt federal programs that would feed them. Or, even worse, children may go unfed because they don’t live close enough to a school where food is available. Babies can be denied formula because their parents live in No Man’s Land: they earn too much to qualify for aid and too little to afford food.

Leaving 2,000 students in the lurch

In Anne Arundel County, a little-known federal program called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is an example of how people in No Man’s Land can be left behind.

In a decision that garnered little attention at the time, the Anne Arundel County school board in 2017 refused to provide free breakfast and lunch meals for an estimated 2,000 students, according to the board’s own records.

The children would have gotten the food through the CEP, which provides free meals to all the children in a school in a high poverty area whether or not any individual student falls below the federal poverty threshold. While the state legislature overwhelming voted in 2017 to re-authorize the program that began in 2010, nine counties including Anne Arundel have refused to adopt it.

The Anne Arundel school board justified its refusal in 2017 because it said, among other things, that it was too difficult to fill out the paperwork to become eligible.

In written testimony submitted to the General Assembly, the board argued that the program “would impose onerous and cumbersome reporting requirements on staff and the Division of Food and Nutrition Services, with hundreds of hours being required to fulfill the requisite report under the CEP Program.”

The board also noted that making sure kids got fed would cost the county approximately $466,000. And, in an unexpected twist, the school board also said using the CEP could cause “significant confusion and hardship for families” of those getting free meals because one child might be in a CEP school while another was not. It did not explain why that would be a problem.

Three years later Anne Arundel County still has not adopted the CEP program. According to the latest figures, that means an estimated 750 children are not receiving free meals. They are in 11 of the county’s 120 public schools where more than 40% of the children are receiving food stamps or other government benefits. The children who are judged to live under the poverty level still get their meals but the kids just above that line are out of luck.

The Anne Arundel school children are joined in No Man’s Land by more than 63,000 other children in Maryland who live in school districts that have either refused to adopt the CEP program or have done so only partially. That is because state government has adopted a “hands off” policy that allows each school district to choose whether or not to feed their students.

And despite the program’s obvious benefits, the website for the Governor’s Partnership to End Childhood Hunger In Maryland does not mention implementing CEP as one of its goals.

One solution, says Palmer, the program director for Food Communities and Public Health at Johns Hopkins, is to provide lunch in the same way that schools provide books and desks. “You wouldn’t be discriminating against who gets lunch and doesn’t get lunch. It would just be universal lunch.”

Orr says such a program would also make economic sense. “Hunger is more than a moral issue,” Orr said. “It’s really an economic one. Nutrition affects children’s health. It affects their ability to learn in the classroom. You can’t learn if you’re hungry and that ultimately translates into worse educational outcomes, a less educated workforce and therefore a less effective, less efficient economy.”

‘Double devolution’

Although Congress created the CEP program in 2010, the situation Maryland finds itself in today was first outlined in a law review article in 2004 that appears today to be incredibly prescient.

Karen Czapanskiy, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said the 1996 reform of America’s welfare program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) created something she called “double devolution.”

University of Maryland Law Professor Karen Czapanskiy

Instead of a common set of rules about who gets welfare payments, TANF sends a block grant to each state, which in turn devises, within limits set by Washington, their own programs to help families living in poverty. In other words, TANF devolves the federal responsibility to the states.

But what happened next, Czapanskiy explained, was that states devolved some of their administrative duties to local government units like school boards and county governments – in short, “double devolution.”

“While devolution and double devolution hold out the promise of individualized service and locally tailored programs,” Czapanskiy explained, “they also involve the risk that similarly situated people will be treated quite differently for no apparent reason other than the location of their homes.”

While CEP is not part of the TANF program, it is exhibit A for Czapanskiy’s argument. Because there is no statewide mandate that school districts must have a CEP program, whether kids get a free lunch depends on where they live.

The city of Baltimore, for example, is one of only three school systems in the state to fully implement the law. Baltimore has 172 schools and 170 of them have the CEP program. The two without the CEP do not qualify because they fall below the 40% requirement.

But the Baltimore County school system, which is literally a stone’s throw away from Baltimore City, is the mirror opposite. It has 167 schools but only four use the CEP. This is despite the fact that Baltimore County has 48 schools that qualify for CEP.

According to state records, if those 48 schools did use CEP, 7,667 children would have school meals provided to them. The only mistake these students made was living in the wrong school district.

This problem of using inaccurate yardsticks brings us back again to Czapanskiy’s observation that whether the poor get help depends in part on where they live. If the children in the No Man’s Land created by the yardstick live next to a CEP school, they will get food. But if they live next to a school where most of the other children are from well to do families, they are out of luck.

Also out of luck are babies unlucky enough to be born into a family living in No Man’s Land. The upper income limit to be eligible for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is exactly the same as for a free or reduced price school lunch with exactly the same result.

And as with CEP, the Maryland Hunger Solutions report found there is no statewide policy on school lunch debt.

“Occasionally, schools have relied on crowdfunding or private donations to cover the cost of bad debt from unpaid meal fees,” the report says. “While well intentioned, these short-term solutions are not sustainable and rely on isolated cases of charity to protect students and support school meal programs.”

‘Students felt diminished’

While a child in Anne Arundel will be shamed, in nearby Montgomery County the same child will be protected.

The Montgomery County Public Schools system decided to abandon “lunch shaming” in 2018. “Students felt diminished because they had that alternative meal and their peers knew that they could not afford the regular lunch,” explained Yolanda Pruitt, director of the Montgomery County Public Schools Educational Foundation.

Now all children get the same lunch whether or not they are able to pay. The school district then decides which students are needy and Pruitt’s foundation raises the money to pay their lunch debt.

In the coming months parents, children and all who try to help them may face a much larger problem. The Trump administration has proposed “tightening” food stamp eligibility to, in its words, “save $2.5 billion.” Because a child qualifies for a free school lunch if the parents are receiving food stamps, it is estimated that 500,000 children will suddenly be dropped from the program when their parents are dumped from food stamps.

The Trump administration said this is simply a matter of “closing loopholes.”

No Man’s Land may be about to get much larger.

Read the whole series:

Part one: Meet the Food Stamp Firms of Maryland, plus Bum Blockade: How We Got the Food Stamp Data

Part two: All About the Hunger Industry, plus The Tax Deduction Recipe That Feeds Hunger

Part three: Measuring Hunger: One Size Does Not Fit All, plus Calculating How to Go Hungry

Part five: When the Floor Becomes the Ceiling

Part six: There’s No Wage Like the Minimum Wage

Part seven: The Volunteer Army Trying to Fight Hunger

Elliot Jaspin is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who has worked for over 40 years at newspapers in Pennsylvania, Maine, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. He has also taught journalism at the University of Missouri and the University of Maryland.

Jaspin founded the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting and was honored for his computer work by the National Press Foundation in 1994. In addition, he is the author of “Buried In The Bitter Waters: The Hidden History Of Racial Cleansing In America.” He lives in Annapolis and can be reached at [email protected]

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