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Tony Casanova surveyed the lunchroom inside Keith Elementary School, as nearly a hundred children gobbled up hot cheese pizza, chugged cold chocolate milk and popped fruit into their mouths.

Casanova bought lunch for one of the children who couldn’t afford to pay. He doesn’t know whom, and he doesn’t need to know why the child needed the money. Casanova picks up the bill to eradicate lunch shaming, when a child can’t pay for a hot lunch and gets a plate of cheese and crackers — or nothing — to eat.

“Food insecurity is something that only adults should deal with, not children,” said the Commerce Township father who created the Invisible Dad program in the Walled Lake Consolidated Schools district.

Lunch shaming and unpaid school lunch debt — the money owed a district when a child is given a lunch without paying — have received nationwide attention in recent years. Some states, such as New Mexico, have banned lunch shaming outright. In May, Congress introduced bills to create the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017, but those efforts stalled.

According to food service officials, these two problems are more common in middle-class school districts rather than high-poverty ones, where free meals are typically served to all students.

Casanova was motivated to act in 2016 after learning his daughter’s school friend had no money in her food account at Keith and was given cheese and crackers to eat instead of the hot lunch being served to other children.

“That struck a note with me. I grew up with a single mother, and there were times when mom had to choose between lunch and tires and lunch and electrical. Lunch and everything,” said Casanova, who owns his own cleaning and construction companies.

“I told the principal, please charge it to me. It was unacceptable. He said he would allow that and then he told me there are other kids in the same situation,” he said.

Seeing the need was greater than one child, Casanova created the Invisible Dad program by donating money directly to the school. The money goes into a special account to “invisibly” pay for a lunch when a child’s account is empty.

The program, funded with a $3,000 donation from Casanova and donations from others, paid for 1,500 lunches during the 2016-17 school year. Hot lunch costs $2.75 in the district.

“Before this, a child went through lunch line. The lunch lady pulls up the record. If there is no money in the account, they have to pull their tray. It happens in front of all the other kids. It’s a big problem,” he said. “Now if they are overdrawn the lunch lady presses a button and the Invisible Dad account pays. It’s like the dad is standing there invisible.”

This fall Casanova spread the program to all 12 elementary schools in the Oakland County district. His goal is to raise $33,000 to deposit $2,750 into each school account to pay for 1,000 lunches this year.

A local decision

In 2016, after several cases of lunch shaming made national news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a directive to all school food authorities who operate the National School Lunch Program to come up with a written unpaid meal “charging” policy by July 1 of this year. The new policies took effect in the 2017-18 school year.

Charging refers to the practice of allowing a child to “charge” a lunch on a food account with no money or a negative balance.

How to handle students without enough money who do not qualify for free lunches — or who have not signed up — is a local decision in a local-control education state, Michigan Department of Education spokesman Bill DiSessa said.

On-the-books policies can range from allowing charging up to a certain amount or number of meals; giving a student a free or reduced-price alternate meal such as a cheese sandwich, apple or milk; or outright denying a child lunch, DiSessa said.

“Administrators must balance the importance of serving nutritious meals to all students against the fair, consistent enforcement of meal-charging policies covering students who don’t qualify for free lunches,” DiSessa said.

According to the national School Nutrition Association, unpaid meal debts have become a growing problem for schools. The association’s 2016 School Nutrition Operations Report found about three-quarters of school districts had an unpaid student meal debt at the end of last school year, an increase from 70.8 percent of districts reporting debt in 2014.

DiSessa said the Michigan Department of Education does not track information on school lunch debt and does not know how much exists statewide or at the local level.

Dearborn Public Schools had $133,862 in unpaid lunch balances at the end of the 2016-17 year. The district had to pay $5,746.17 to cover outstanding debt of outgoing high school seniors.

“We attempt to collect the money. The bottom line is we are not denying kids lunch. ...We are not going to let a child go hungry,” said David Mustonen, district spokesman.

The district’s policy has firm rules about lunch charging but also requires school officials to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance.

Students with zero or negative lunch balances can charge up to four school hot lunch meals, but not à la carte items. After that, an elementary student is served an alternate meal until the balance is paid. After the fifth charged meal, school officials will work with a parent or guardian on repayment or obtain a completed free or reduced meal application.

If there is no resolution, school administration or a social worker may complete an application for a child known to be eligible. For those where financial need is not able to be determined, the school administration may notify Children’s Protective Services.

Utica Community Schools enacted a food service policy for the first time this year, per the USDA directive. Students are served an alternative meal after being allowed to charge up to five hot lunches, the district’s policy states. Alternate meals are no charge and continue to be offered while the negative balance is being resolved.

The Macomb County district’s lunch debt for last school year was $7,207.

For elementary school households, auto-messages from the school on negative/low balances are sent weekly. When an account balance is low or negative, cashiers will share that information with the student “in a respectful age-appropriate manner.”

“We would not publicly embarrass a student or place them in an uncomfortable situation,” district spokesman Tim McAvoy said.

A middle-class problem

Scott Little, executive director of the School Nutrition Association of Michigan, said there is a cost associated with every meal.

“When a district allows charging and those debts don’t get paid, that comes from the (district’s) general fund, which is paid by taxpayers,” he said.

School lunch debt is not typically a problem for districts that serve high-poverty areas because they can feed 100 percent of their population at no charge to the children under the federal Community Eligibility Provision program. Rather, Little said, it’s more common in middle-class districts.

“I think it’s a cusp where families don’t quite qualify for free and reduced meals but they are lower to middle income,” he said.

Boosting the number of children signed up for food programs is one solution to the problem, food service officials said. The federal program provided low-cost or free lunches to more than 30.4 million children daily at a cost of $13.6 billion in 2016, according to the USDA.

“Please apply for this,” Little said. “That is what it is for. The districts get more federal funds when they do.”

Eligible families can get free or reduced-prices lunches in Michigan but have to fill out paperwork and provide family income, state officials said. Families should contact their school or school district to enroll in the program anytime during the school year.

According to data from the state, in the fall of 2016 about 46 percent of the state’s 1.53 million public school population were eligible for a free or reduced-price meal. About 612,030 students were eligible for a free meal in 2016 and another 90,747 were eligible for a reduced-price meal.

Of those eligible, 74.04 percent participated in 2016-17. The year before 70.65 percent participated in 2015-16.

More than 100 Michigan school districts in high-poverty areas use the Community Eligibility Provision program to serve free meals to all students regardless of family income and have no school lunch debt.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District provides every student in grades K-12 with breakfast, lunch and snacks at no charge, regardless of income. Dearborn has 15 schools taking part in the program for the first time this year.

‘There to read and learn’

Online fundraising campaigns have been used around the United States to tackle existing school lunch debt balances. Casanova started a GoFundMe page for the Invisible Dad program in Walled Lake and said direct donations can be made to any of the schools via the district’s webpage.

Casanova said people might question why he is paying for lunches in a district that serves many affluent communities in Oakland County, such as West Bloomfield and Commerce townships.

Parents lose jobs, some have bad years in their own business and some parents just forget to send food, Casanova said. And that’s OK. He wants to feed any child who needs a lunch, he said. Eradicating food insecurity can be done, he said.

“Kids at this age shouldn’t know anything about that. They are there to learn and read. What we eat for lunch should not be one of the differences,” he said.

He also is not worried about children abusing the program. When the program pays for a meal, the child’s parent gets an email saying Invisible Dad paid for lunch that day. Casanova doesn’t ask for the money back, he said.

“The bottom line is kids need to have lunch. If they are taking advantage, it’s for a reason. Something is going on,” he said.

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