Miller Middle School announced it would serve partial lunches to students who owed $8 or more to the cafeteria this week, prompting a school employee to start a Facebook fundraiser to pay off their debt.
Durango School District 9-R said no partial lunches were served, and signs in cafeterias remind students to pay their tab, district spokeswoman Julie Popp said in an email to The Durango Herald.
The sign posted earlier this week in the Miller cafeteria read: “Kiddos – Partial lunch will be given to you if you have charges (of) $8 or more. Be prepared for partial lunches from here until the end of the school year!”
Partial lunches can consist of a cheese stick and fruit or a granola bar and fruit, according to the 9-R website. A partial breakfast includes dry cereal and milk.
Robyn Baxendale, a special education para-educator at Miller, said she started the online fundraiser because serving partial lunches for a debt is punishing students for something that is out of their control.
“I don’t like kids to feel embarrassed for something that is not their doing,” she said.
Baxendale raised about $830 in three days to pay off the students’ $633 debt, she said. More than $500 was raised through Facebook, and $300 was donated by a person who visited the school in person, she said.
The surplus will be set aside to pay off any future debt, Baxendale said.
Alicia Spear was among those who donated to the Facebook fundraiser because she is friends with Baxendale and cares about students in the district.
“We should supply kids who need their lunches paid for,” she said, adding, “It’s up to us to help our kiddos.”
Durango District 9-R could not confirm how much it had received through the fundraiser on Thursday, Popp said. She also said Baxendale’s efforts were unnecessary.
“We appreciate everyone’s concern in this area, but negatively casted, nondistrict-sponsored fundraisers are not necessary,” she said.
The district contacts parents and guardians of children who owe money for lunch through letters, phone calls, emails and text messages, she said.
By contacting families, the district determines whether the responsible adults either forgot to credit their child’s meal account or have a true financial need, she said. The district will work with parents who have financial need to sign their students up for free and reduced lunch.
Several community partners and families regularly make donations to pay off debts accrued by students before they can be signed up for free and reduced lunches, she said. This year, the district has received $2,208.45 to pay off student lunch debt, she said.
Baxendale said she was pleased by community’s response to her fundraiser, but it doesn’t solve the long-term problem.
“It’s like a Band-Aid I am putting on the problem, so the kids at my school can eat a full meal and not be embarrassed,” she said.
Embarrassing students who cannot pay for lunch is called “lunch shaming,” and it has been addressed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that funds free and reduced lunch, she said. The agency discourages tactics such as denying children meals, requiring children to work for meals or identifying children who owe money for the food through stickers or other physical reminders.
The Colorado Department of Education also discourages lunch shaming. But under state law it is only illegal for district to deny students a diploma, transcripts or grades because they have outstanding debt. Schools are also not required to provide students with alternative meals if they owe districts money, according to CDE. But if a student has cash in hand, they must be served a meal, and it cannot be used to pay their debt, said Jeremy Meyer, a spokesman for the department.
Baxendale said she would like the district to change its policy to eliminate partial lunches entirely and budget so all students can be served full meals, while the district works with parents and guardians to settle bills.
“We need to take care of their basic needs,” she said.