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Riverhead adopts policy mandated by state to eliminate any chance of ‘meal shaming’

The Riverhead school board unanimously adopted a meal plan Tuesday that eliminates any chance of “meal shaming” for students who cannot afford lunch or have outstanding school meal debt.

The plan will run in conjunction with the current district policy that offers reduced-price meals to students.

The “Meal Charge and Prohibition Against Meal Shaming Policy” states that the goal of the plan is to establish procedures to address unpaid meal charges throughout the district in a way that “does not stigmatize, distress or embarrass students.”

The district’s goal, according to the plan, is to provide students access to nutritious no- or low-cost meals each school day to ensure students whose parent or guardian has unpaid school meal fees is not “shamed or treated differently than a pupil whose parent/guardian does not have unpaid meal fees.”

Legislation passed in 2018 required public, non-public and charter schools to develop a written plan to address potential meal shaming. The New York State Education Department developed a webinar and corresponding guidance materials to assist schools in how to train personnel.

Yolanda Thompson of Baiting Hallow said under the current meal policy, students are denied participation in moving-up ceremonies and proms.

Policy 8505, established in 2013, allows students who do not have enough funds with them to “charge” the cost of regular reimbursable meals to be paid back at a later date. 

At the discretion of the superintendent, the policy states, students with outstanding charges at the end of the school year may not be permitted to participate in the graduation or moving-up ceremony, junior or senior prom and end-of-year dance, the policy states. Students may also be restricted from receiving a high school parking pass or purchasing a yearbook.

However, Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider said no student has been held back from graduation, a yearbook purchase, or the like, because the district works with student’s parents or guardians to enter into a “workable” payment plan so students are not negatively impacted.

“We have never taken a meal away from a student, we have not denied a meal for a student, put a wristband or label on a student, and we don’t discuss debt with students — we discuss it with their parents or guardians,” Mr. Schneider said. 

Only one student has been held back from graduation during the time the old policy has been active — and he had no interest in attending, Mr. Schneider said.

He said that policy has been reviewed by the State Education Department and meets the qualifications. He also said parents who are struggling with lunch debt are encouraged to look into free or reduced lunches and can always contact the district for additional information. 

Mr. Schneider said five of the seven schools in the district are in the Community Eligible Provision, which provides breakfast and lunch to every student in those schools at no cost every day. That policy, he said, has reduced the district debt from about $70,000 to about $20,000 since its inception in 2015. The current debt has decreased by roughly $2,900 since July 1, 2019, he said.

Board member Therese Zuhoski was not present at the meeting.