Crafting an Unpaid Meal Fee Policy that Prevents Stigma and Shaming


In 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a guidance requiring all school districts or state administering agencies participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) or School Breakfast Program (SBP) to create and clearly communicate a policy on unpaid school meal debt. The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), the state agency administering NSLP and SBP, has opted to let local districts set their own policies. While the USDA did not establish national standards to protect children from stigma, they and other leaders in the field have established some recommended actions to prevent lunch shaming through these Meal Debt Policies.

Unpaid school meal debt can be a substantial burden to schools. School Districts have taken multiple approaches to solving this complex issue. While it is necessary for schools to pursue unpaid meal debt, there are policies that can be adopted to increase efficiency and prevent any child from being shamed for a financial issue that is beyond their control. Based on recommendations from the USDA and Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Hunger Free Oklahoma urges schools to include the following considerations in their school meal debt policy:

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  • Schools should communicate directly and discretely with the household adults. If communication is sent home with the child it should be in an unmarked white envelope.
  • School districts should continue to serve the regular reimbursable meal while working to obtain payment.
  • If a school cannot afford to continue serving the regular reimbursable meal they should serve an alternative meal that provides students with adequate nutrition and matches USDA guidelines on servings for a child of their age. Alternative meals should be served discretely.
  • No meal should ever be taken away from a child after it has been served to them.
  • Schools should make every effort to determine eligibility for free or reduced price meals through direct certification or by having the family apply for free and reduced price meals through the application if payment remains delinquent.
  • Schools should not take any action that publicly identifies or otherwise stigmatizes a student with unpaid meal charges.
  • Efforts to collect unpaid debt should never cost more than the value owed to the school and schools should never turn over unpaid debt to a collection agency.

While Hunger Free Oklahoma strongly encourages schools to consider their options to implement universal feeding program such as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) if feasible, these policy recommendations take steps to prevent lunch shaming through school policy. Hunger Free Oklahoma is here as a resource to determine if CEP is feasible for schools and school districts and to help craft school meal policies that protect students.

To see the USDA’s complete recommendations click here. FRAC’s full listing of best practices for meal debt policies and example policies can be found here.