Last August, Denver Public Schools (DPS) unveiled a new school-lunch policy: It promised that all students would be given a full hot meal every day regardless of any outstanding debts. Under the old policy, students ineligible for the free- and reduced-price lunch program had been expected to pay for their lunch — or else, after enough “unsuccessful attempts” to get their families to pony up, they were given an “alternate lunch” (typically a sandwich or snack). In education circles, Denver earned hosannas for seeking to put an end to “lunch-shaming.”
Now, a year later, the check has come due. To the apparent surprise of everyone in K–12 schooling — but no one outside it — it turns out that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. Education news site Chalkbeat Colorado recently reported that debt from unpaid lunches exploded during the 2017–2018 school year. It grew more than 25-fold, to $356,000, up from $13,910 the year before. That amounts to about 900 unpaid lunches every day of the school year for the 92,000-student DPS. While some lunch debt is common nationwide, and some districts and even a few states have similar “lunch-shaming prevention” policies, Denver’s debt balance is exceptional.
To be fair, much of the debt is from families that are not expected to pay anyway. As the School Nutrition Association blithely notes, guaranteeing all students a meal weakens the incentive for qualifying families to bother filling out the paperwork to enroll in the free- and reduced-price meal program — paperwork that brings in federal funds. A little under a third of the DPS debt was incurred by families eligible for free or reduced-price meals who signed up partway into the year, after their children had already received free school lunches. That means more than two-thirds of the shortfall was due to families outside the free- and reduced-price lunch program, although it’s unknown how many families were eligible but never signed up at all.
DPS officials struggled to make sense of this phenomenon, lamenting that it was “impossible to determine” how many families were “struggl[ing] financially” and “how many can afford to pay for school lunches but choose not to.” Even after weekly robocalls to delinquent parents, principal outreach to families, and letters sent home with students, the district appeared disappointed to learn that, when confronted with a payment-optional policy, so many families opted not to pay.
Now, school-lunch programs are especially tricky, because no one wants to see children go hungry on account of their parents’ financial circumstances. But unintended consequences don’t vanish because they’re incurred in a good cause. Worse, those consequences tend to erode the very trust and goodwill that make for responsible school communities.
If you’re paying a couple hundred dollars a year for your child’s lunch and your neighbor stops paying with no consequence, sooner or later you’re likely to overhear something about it at a soccer game or PTA function. And if your neighbor keeps getting away with it, you’re going to eventually start feeling like a sucker. Pretty soon, in fact, you may decide to stop paying, too.
The longer this goes on, the more free-riding starts to seem like the only sensible course. When that happens, school districts like Denver’s have to choose whether to adopt intrusive new policies to correct the damage — or funnel dollars from academic programs to subsidize the free riders.
The lesson: Even the most well-meaning of bureaucratic schemes can do unintended harm — unraveling the ties and trust essential to healthy schools and compassionate communities. It’s a lesson that deserves more respect than it tends to get from America’s education impresarios.
— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Grant Addison is the program manager for education-policy studies at AEI.