First, it was school lunch debt. Now Tacoma couple takes aim at free, reduced lunch program

Sign up early for free and reduced price school lunch, urges Tacoma mom

Allison Stewart Bishins encourages Tacoma families to sign up early for free and reduced price school lunch this year. Stewart Bishins and her husband organized a GoFundMe last year, which paid off school lunch debt at two Tacoma elementary schools.
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Allison Stewart Bishins encourages Tacoma families to sign up early for free and reduced price school lunch this year. Stewart Bishins and her husband organized a GoFundMe last year, which paid off school lunch debt at two Tacoma elementary schools.

Allison Stewart Bishins wants more Tacoma parents to sign their kids up for free school lunch.

She and her husband Spencer, who organized a GoFundMe campaign which paid off school lunch debt at two Tacoma elementary schools, are on a mission to educate more people about the program.

The News Tribune reported in June that at the end of the school year, about $50,000 worth of the Tacoma School District’s $160,000 school lunch debt had been accrued by families eligible for free and reduced lunches.

“We decided what we could do as a family is an information campaign, just to encourage people to sign up earlier,” Stewart Bishins said.

She has posted information about the program in 15 different Facebook groups, asked friends to include information about it in newsletters that go out to families with children and asked shop owners she knows to advertise it to their customers.

The couple also is keeping their GoFundMe open through the end of September and say they hope to pay off another school’s lunch debt with the donations.

“We don’t know exactly what the impacts will be, but I have had people tell me that they’ve signed up for the first time ever or that they’ve signed up a month earlier than they did last year. That’s what we’re looking for, just utilizing the program at the earliest opportunity,” she said.

Unintended consequences

In the past year, school lunch debts have rapidly increased, in large part due to a law which prohibits Washington public schools from denying a child a hot meal because their parents haven’t paid.

In 2018, The News Tribune reported that school districts had accrued substantial amounts of debt in just a few months since the law went into effect.

In Nov. 2018, Bethel School District had already accrued $21,000 in school lunch debt. In years past, they only had around $2,000 and $3,000 in debt at the end of each year. At that time, Federal Way Public Schools had $30,000 in school lunch debt.

Currently, families across the Tacoma Public School District hold over $130,000 in school lunch debt according to Alicia Lawver, the spokeswoman for Tacoma Public Schools Nutrition Services. That number has more than doubled since last year.

Last school year began with $50,000 in school lunch debt across the district.

In March 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the “Hungry-Free Students’ Bill of Rights,” also called ESHB 2610, into law. It went into effect in June 2018, The News Tribune reported.

The law prohibits “lunch shaming,” or in other words, for school staff to publicly identify a child whose parents haven’t paid for their school lunches. That includes giving them an alternate meal.

The law also eliminates caps previously placed on negative meal balances. As a consequence of the law, parents across Tacoma have begun to run up higher meal debts.

Last school year, Stewart Bishins and her husband found out about the lunch debt at Jefferson Elementary, where one of their daughters will be entering fourth grade. The total debt held by families at the school was over $2,000.

“As they’re doing these no lunch-shaming laws, the consequence is that there’s debt,” she said. “And that debt impacts the same families that they were trying not to shame. It’s a good law but it has unintended consequences. A better law would have been, ‘All school lunches are free.’”

The couple’s GoFundMe was so successful that they were able to entirely pay off the lunch debt at both Jefferson and Blix Elementary, another Tacoma public school.

“I will be honest, they opened my eyes to something I wasn’t even looking at,” Jim Ball, the principal at Jefferson, said of the couple. “It just says a lot about who they are as people.”

Encouraging more applications

A majority of Tacoma public school students receive free or reduced price lunches. Last year, nearly 60% of students district-wide enrolled in the program, and the previous year’s rate was only slightly lower, at just over 50% of students, Lawver explained.

Public schools can become eligible for more funding based on their percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch.

If more than 50% of students are in the program, the school qualifies for extra state funding, and if more than 75% of students are enrolled, it can qualify for more federal funding. Stewart Bishins views this as a reason to encourage more applications.

“We should be encouraging everyone who thinks that they’re eligible to apply and to encourage everyone to actually check the eligibility standards because it’s a lot higher than people think, so that we can make sure that our schools are getting enough funding,” she said.

To qualify for free and reduced price lunches, a family of four would need to make $47,638 per year or less. For a family of eight, the income level goes up to $80,346 per year.

According to federal regulations, a family must re-apply for free and reduced lunches every year, even if they qualified the year before, Lawver said. The family only needs to submit one application, even if they have multiple children enrolled in the school.

Submitting an application early in the year is essential. Even if the family’s application is approved, they still will be charged full price for meals their children ate at school before the application was approved. Stewart Bishins believes this leads to some of the lunch debt.

She said she feels the district needs to make more of an effort to notify families about enrolling early in the program and make it clear they need to enroll again each year even if they qualified last year.

“My goal for next year is that the district changes the way they do this and that they’re more proactive immediately rather than leaving it to the individual school to encourage the family to do it,” she said.

This year’s application for free and reduced lunch opened up mid-August, Lawver said.

Families can submit applications online or in print, but online applications are processed faster. Lawver said online applications are processed within a day, but applications submitted on paper can take up to 10 business days to process, though she said it rarely takes that long.

That would be two weeks of full-price lunches the family would have to pay.

The online application is only available in English, but Lawver said that the district offers applications in seven other languages on its website. She said the district believes it is the school’s responsibility to print out and distribute applications in multiple languages.

Ball said that Jefferson does not offer paper applications in languages other than English because the school does not have a high percentage of students whose families speak other languages.

At Jefferson, parents are given paper applications for free and reduced lunch the day before school starts, when students go in to meet their teachers and again at Back to School Night later in September.

Computers also are available at Back to School Night for parents who want to sign up online.

Ball said he has not yet considered any administrative changes to further encourage families to sign up for free and reduced school lunch or reduce debt this school year.

Families who applied online the previous year are automatically notified they need to re-apply for the coming year, but those who submitted paper applications are not automatically notified. Last year, the district processed 596 paper applications, Lawver said.

Right now, the district doesn’t know what they would do if a student were to graduate high school with significant school lunch debt, she said.

Prices for school lunches will increase this school year for the first time in six years, The News Tribune reported. The cost of breakfast will increase from $1.65 to $1.90.

For elementary school students, lunch costs will increase from $2.75 to $3.00. For middle and high schoolers, lunch prices will increase from $3 to $3.25.

Lawver said the price increases were a result of federal regulations.

“It’s very restrictive of what we can do,” she said.

Despite challenges with debt, Lawver views the new law a success because it allows more children to be fed.

“We’re all in it for the kids,” she said.

Sign up

Families can apply for the program at the Tacoma School District’s MealAppNow website. They can find a chart which lists income requirements for the program on the Tacoma Public School District’s website under “FAQ’s.”

Stewart Bishins wants to encourage as many people as possible to share the information about free and reduced price school lunches.

“If you have school-age children, share the income limits and application with your friends online, and remind them in person,” she said. “If you’re a teacher print out the income limits and post them on the board in your classroom and remind the group to apply.”