EDITORIAL State, federal bills target “lunch shaming”

May 16, 2017
Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Exterior of the Observer-Reporter building in Washington.

A cafeteria worker quitting her job and generating national headlines because of it is about as likely an occurrence as Bigfoot turning cartwheels in your backyard or, let’s be painfully honest, the Pittsburgh Pirates playing October baseball this year.

But it happened last fall, when Stacey Yannazzo Koltiska turned in her resignation as a food worker at Wylandville Elementary School in Canon-McMillan School District after, in her telling, she had to take a first-grader’s hot meal away from him and give him a cheese sandwich instead because his account was overcharged by more than $25. Koltiska told the Observer-Reporter a few days after she quit that she “just couldn’t do it anymore.”

“He comes up in the line, this boy with his chicken nuggets, and my supervisor’s eyes get wide, and she shakes her head and mouths ‘sandwich,’” Koltiska explained. “I had to take away his hot meal and give him a cheese sandwich and throw the other food away because he either didn’t have money in his account or forgot money. He’s being charged the same for the sandwich and I’m throwing it away anyway. My supervisor said, ‘Well don’t let the child see you throw it away.’ That isn’t the point.”

The district countered Koltiska’s version of events, which she also shared on social media, was lacking in context and facts, but a firestorm nevertheless erupted. It looked like Canon-McMillan School District, and other districts that followed similar practices, were humiliating students for their own poverty or, at least, the inability of their parents or guardians to pay bills on time. While young students were not left with empty stomachs, it did seem like a policy that would not have displeased Ebenezer Scrooge.

Canon-Mac did make some adjustments to the policy and wrote off a little more than $20,000 worth of overdue cafeteria balances. But there have been reports of other districts around the country deploying tactics that also could embarrass young students. Children in one North Dakota community had big green dollar signs stamped on their hands in order to remind their minders to make good on their debts. There have been other reports of wristbands being given to students in arrears, of “chores” being required to close accounts, or of food being withheld completely.

If you’re trying to come up with a way to make these young people despise school and the learning that goes on there, this seems like a dandy way to do it.

It turns out that bills have been introduced or soon will be in both the Pennsylvania Senate and the U.S. Senate that would stop “lunch shaming.” Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey is one of the sponsors of the federal bill, while Sen. Jay Costa, an Allegheny County Democrat, is a sponsor of the state measure. The federal proposal would require schools to communicate with a parent or guardian about food accounts, rather than students. It would also simplify the process of applying for reduced-price or free lunches. Costa said he hopes to have the bill become law in time for the 2017-18 school year. He told PennLive his bill would prevent districts from being “bullies.”

Does either bill stand a chance? We’re not so sure, given the prevailing political winds right now in both Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. But it seems a pity there might be a need for these proposals in the first place. Dealing with parents, rather than their children, when it comes to overdue meal bills is plain and simple common sense.

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