The noisy, chaotic school lunchroom may seem like an innocuous place. But look a little closer, and you might spot some students sitting by themselves or eating a simple peanut butter sandwich instead of a full meal.
The same mundane cafeteria where students refuel and kick back at midday also is rife with societal concerns that have been persistent for decades.
Two are now being addressed.
First, to ensure everybody has a table mate, Feb. 9 is National No One Eats Alone Day, when an estimated 1 million students around the country are expected to observe the inclusion program.
And for the first time, public school districts are being required this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set policies on how they will handle delinquent meal tabs, which have become a costly taxpayer expense.
Created in 2012 by a student-led nonprofit, Beyond Differences, which seeks to end social isolation, No One Eats Alone Day encourages students to sit with unfamiliar classmates, get to know them and search out others who might feel left out and include them.
This year, the program includes a student pledge to end social isolation and make school more inclusive for everyone all year long.
Hope Callan, a seventh-grader at Colorado Springs Charter Academy, has taken up the cause since kindergarten.
"If someone's sitting alone, I'll usually just ask them to come sit next to me and my friends," said Hope, who's 12.
"My mom and dad raised me to be open to others and never allow bullying to happen," Hope answers. "In the lunchroom it rarely happens, but if it does, I make sure I'm the one taking care of it."
Colorado Springs Charter Academy, a K-8 charter school that opened in 2005 at 2577 N. Chelton Road and has about 500 students, is one of the 2,000 schools around the nation signed up to participate in the observance.
"It's important that everyone feels included," said school counselor Rebekah Lusk, who's heading up the activities at the charter school. "It's still a problem - even with all the anti-bullying programs, sometimes you still have kids who don't have someone to eat with."
Having friends at school to hang out with helps students "feel much more part of the community," Lusk said, and reduces absenteeism.
Schools that take part in the program receive a free backpack containing curriculum for teachers to lead classroom discussions, icebreaker games, balloons, armbands, posters and materials for a schoolwide art project.
At Colorado Springs Charter Academy, it will involve students building a tree out of purple apples and pledging to work to end social isolation.
Lusk is recruiting two boys and two girls from each classroom, kids who are likable, approachable and who display leadership qualities, to act as student ambassadors and help all students feel included.
Lusk also will be stationed at a table in the lunchroom in a T-shirt that says, "You Can Sit With Us."
"We've worked hard at making sure kids feel comfortable and confident at school," she said.
"We talk about what it's like to be a new kid and let's make sure no one is left out. This program will bolster what we've been doing and help kids think through social isolation and what it does to people."
Tackling overdue meal fees
Another issue, unpaid meal fees, has resulted in the USDA mandating school districts to institute a policy by July 2017 and start it this school year.
The Colorado Department of Education has been tasked with making sure policies are in place.
"We are getting a good response in that districts have adopted and are implementing policies for unpaid meal charges," said Lyza Shaw, business operations supervisor for the education department's Office of School Nutrition.
The department lists on its website requirements and best practices, a checklist for developing procedures and other resources.
"There are a lot of districts that have very high unpaid meal charge balances, which we consider delinquent debt, so districts are trying to figure out how to handle it," Shaw said.
Delinquent debt from student meals is not an allowable expense for food service funds, she said, thus must be recouped out of a district's general fund.
"What I consider education money," Shaw said.
In other words, taxpayer dollars.
The problem is not new. Many districts have had protocols in place, but the government requirement "made it more official," Shaw said.
A list of "discouraged" actions includes not announcing names of children who have unpaid meal charges or somehow identifying the children with outstanding balances with hand stamps or stickers.
Schools usually provide a free alternate meal to students whose accounts are in arrears.
In Colorado Springs School District 11, students are only allowed a negative balance of 40 cents before they no longer can receive a regular meal.
The freebie is a peanut butter or "fun butter" sandwich and milk.
"We don't allow kids to go hungry," said Kent Wehri, D-11's director of food and nutrition services.
In Widefield School District 3, the alternate is the regular meal for the day minus the entrée.
"It's a hot topic every year, and has been for decades," said Samantha Briggs, spokeswoman for Widefield D-3. "I think it's an issue in all school districts and really is a team effort between students, employees and parents in making sure we keep that communication open in collecting fees."
D-3 has seen a "slight increase" in delinquent meal accounts in recent years, she said, citing such factors as the rising cost of living and an increasing threshold for qualifying for the federal government's free and reduced price meal program.
"A lot of our families get kicked out of it or no longer qualify from one year to the next," Briggs said.
"I don't think it's parents that just don't want to pay or are forgetting or there's a lack of communication," Briggs said. "I think it really is they're having a hard time making it work."
Schools notify parents of low balances by calls, emails or text messages and encourage families who may qualify for the free meals program to apply.
D-3 students are only allowed two free replacement meals per school year.
"If a student has used their complimentary meals, our kitchen staff knows that before that student gets in line, and parents are either working out a payment plan or some sort of deal," Briggs said. "We want to work together to ensure our children are fed."
Some schools have "angels" who donate money to help offset the negative balances for meals.
Parent-teacher associations, school clubs, other parents and community members have made donations to D-11 schools, Wehri said.
Last year, a local radio station held a fundraiser for listeners to donate money to pay off one school's bad meal debt, he said.
"We are accountable for every taxpayer dollar," Wehri said.
D-11 operates 67 lunch and dinner sites that each serve an average of 1,764 paid meals and 91 alternate meals.
D-11's bad meal debt is running $2,000 to $4,000 at this time, he added, saying that he's heard of districts in other states where the amount is hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Widefield D-3 this year started a donation button on its website where people can donate money to help defray students' delinquent meal debt.
Briggs said more than $600 has been collected online since the method started in August.
D-3 rolls over its delinquent debt from year to year, which is allowed under new USDA regulations.
The district ended the 2016-17 school year with $2,842 worth of unpaid lunch fees, Briggs said.
A proposed bill before Colorado legislators, which would extend to middle school students an existing law allowing parents of elementary school children who qualify for the federal government's reduced meal price subsidy program to automatically receive free meals, would help decrease meal debt in schools, she said.