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Free lunch for all ends lunch shaming at one Indiana school district

Wayne Township schools started offering free lunch to all students regardless of a family's income or needs during the 2015-2016 school year at 12 of its schools.

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Just weeks into the new school year, an old problem is popping up: lunch shaming. As a growing number of families struggle to make ends meet, many don't have enough for a child's school lunch.

In Indiana, Wayne Township schools started offering free lunch to all students regardless of a family's income or needs during the 2015-2016 school year at 12 of its schools.

"If your child owed any kind of money, they'd receive a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and the first time that I saw a child crying with their head down, I said 'we're not going to do this anymore,'" said Wayne Township Assistant Superintendent and former school Principal Cheri O'Day Marcotte. "When you think of how you feel when you're hungry or haven't had lunch -- there is the Snickers commercial about it -- kids are the same way, and their little bodies haven't learned the need to have fuel."

The district doesn't charge students a daily bus fare when they board, so why would they do the same for lunch, Marcotte said.

"I can't do it. I can't not feed kids," she said. "Bad experience in school leads to not liking school, not wanting to do well in school, not belonging, not fitting in. If you think of something negative that happened at your elementary school and we all can, you carry that. If we can at least alleviate some of that for a child and make sure learning is able to happen, I don't know why we wouldn't do it."

The program has expanded for the 2019-2020 school year to the remaining six schools in the district.

That includes Robey Elementary where leaders say it's already making a difference.

"If you have a negative self image or feel poorly about yourself for the 15-20 minutes that you're in a cafeteria, that's going to carry over throughout the rest of the day, so we're seeing a positive impact not only with the school lunch program but with how that affects kids, and it goes throughout the rest of their learning experience" Principal Ben Markley said.

Last year, his school had about $800 in outstanding student lunch debt that family's couldn't pay.

"It's great that the need isn't happening this school year. We would have had at least 30 students who owed $10 or more, and that quickly adds up and multiplies over time," Markley said. "That becomes a huge stressor on a student to know that each day, their family is going a little bit more in debt."

School leaders would have to get creative to find ways to pick up the tab instead of letting kids go hungry.

"We did some things like paying it off with our extra Pepsi money generated from the teacher's lounge. We'd ask parents to pay it, but we tried very hard to never give the alternative lunch. The lunch shaming -- while in theory, people will say to us 'well they owe the money' -- when you're looking in the face of a six year old who's hungry, that theory goes out the window," Marcotte said.

School lunch in Wayne Township for a student would normally cost $2 a day. For all 180 school days, that comes out to $360 a year per student. The district has approximately 17,000 students, meaning the annual cost comes in at roughly $6.12 million.

The district pays 14 percent of that, or $856,800, because 86 percent of students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunch.

"You get reimbursed for the meals that you serve, and that reimbursement has extra that comes with it when we buy things like batch milk or big amounts, so we're able to spend the extra money that's generated from that back into the lunch program," Marcotte said.

Extra food generates more sales and profits to offset that cost; for example, a student receives a main dish, two sides, and one milk. A student can opt to pick up an additional side or milk, but they will have to pay for that.

Teachers often eat lunch at school and must pay for their meal. The food services department also caters special events in the district.

"I think about all the money that we spend and what better way than feeding kids. Will the money run out? It could, but we think right now with the money that's available, why not feed kids," Marcotte said.

Another unexpected benefit comes from speeding up lunch lines. Students don't have to wrestle around with cash or swipe a card, meaning it gives slow eaters more time to eat.

While this is the first year for the district-wide program, school leaders say they'll evaluate it and make changes they need to continue the program.

"We're not going to let kids go hungry," Marcotte said.

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