Denver Public Schools turns to parents to prevent lunch debt

DENVER -- As Denver Public Schools students head back to class this month, their parents are being asked to do something many have never done.

The district wants them to sign up for free or reduced lunch, even if they do not think their family's income would qualify.

"We went from an average of $13,000 in student lunch debt to about $365,000 this last year," said Theresa Pena, DPS Nutrition's Regional Outreach and Engagement Coordinator.

Pena admits the end of "lunch-shaming" at DPS came at an unexpected cost, but said the district plans to keep its promise to feed every child, every day, regardless of income, despite last school year's sky-rocketing lunch debt.

"We were actually thrilled when the superintendent made this decision," said Pena, "because our job is to feed kids."

Before Denver's more than 92,000 public school students cross the thresholds in late August, Pena wants all their parents to register for free or reduced lunches.

"We don't want to penalize any family because of their economic status, but we also don't want to have to pay $365,000 next year," Pena said.  

According to DPS, two-thirds of that debt was racked-up by "paid" families; in other words, students whose families have the means to pay for lunches, but didn't.

The district's online scales shows the income for a family of four to qualify for free lunch is $31,980 a year or less.

For students in that same family to get a reduced price lunch, the top income is $45,510.

Taylor Washington has heard many stories from families about lunch-shaming in Colorado.

"Things like a sticker on the hand or a bracelet to remind parents they need to put more money in their child's meal account, so that can single a student out," she said.

Washington believes DPS is doing the right thing and said her nonprofit, Hunger Free Colorado, helps.

"We're trying to support schools by doing a lot of outreach to communities and enrolling people in food stamps and letting people know they can enroll in free and reduced lunch," she said. 

Washington said a common deterrent is the system itself and that families often do not know how to navigate it.

She said that includes applying for SNAP food assistance, which would give their children automatic lunch benefits.

Denver7 checked and found Jefferson County Schools ended the last year with about $200,000 in lunch debt.

Douglas County Schools said its lunch debt was just over $75,000 for 2017-18.

Pena said parents find out within 24-hours when they apply online if they qualify for free or reduced lunch and that there are no lasting consequences from last year's debt for students or their families.

Hunger Free Colorado has advocates to walk families through the paperwork, policies and applications. Their Food Resource Hotline is statewide, toll free and bi-lingual. The number to call is (855) 855-4626.

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Denver school district's lunch debt explodes: Should we bring back 'lunch-shaming'?

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