Senator Leach Endorsing Bill to Prevent School Lunch Shaming
Bill Would Ban ‘Lunch Shaming’ of Poor Children
A six-year-old girl, whose family income qualified her for free or reduced-price school lunch, had her meal pulled away in the cafeteria line, thrown in the trash and replaced with a cold cheese sandwich. Some schools use “Lunch shaming” as an incentive to collect unpaid bills for school-provided lunches. Sen. Clarence K. Lam has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 760, that would ban the practice in Maryland public schools. If a school does provide different lunches to students who owe, that lunch would have to comply with USDA guidelines and must be available schoolwide. Under Lam’s bill, the Maryland State Department of Education would be responsible for tracking lunch debt. Schools would be required to help families get information about free or reduced-price lunch programs. Some have staff throw the student’s hot meal in the trash and replace it with cold, less nutritious lunches – like the cheese sandwich. “We want to make sure through this bill that everyone is aware of the alternatives, that there are alternatives in place and that no child is ever shamed or disrespected because they can’t pay for their lunch,” Bost said. Prince George’s County school board member K. Alexander Wallace said that this phenomenon is not new and that he was lunch shamed decades ago by the same school system that he now represents. Sudzina said she has seen counties implement policies similar to the ones proposed, but that doing so caused lunch debt to increase exponentially. Lam said the bill has the potential to introduce more families to free and reduced-lunch programs and to start dialogues within school systems that could create alternative approaches, but that it ultimately intends to end the practice of lunch shaming. “Some of the provisions here are directly to ensure that the student does not have a lunch thrown away right in front of them or that they’re prohibited from graduating, etc, etc.,” Lam said.
Debt mounts as school lunch shaming ends
Districts eliminating lunch shaming by providing meals for any student who cannot pay may face an unintended consequence: massive debt, sometimes reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A 2016 School Nutrition Association survey found that 76 percent of districts have such debt. “This is an incredibly tough issue-the school nutrition staff know how important meals are to kids’ academic success, and want to make sure that meals are available to any child who wants one” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, the Nutrition Association’s director of media relations. “But those meals are not funded for kids who are not eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. The district has to cover the cost of food and labor.” A $100,000 grant from the district Medicaid department paid off the debt incurred by students who later qualified for meal benefits. To solve the problem moving forward, Denver is encouraging all families to complete an application for meal benefits every year, Hafner says. “Administrators need to know that for a family who qualifies for meal benefits and for a family who does not pay for their students’ meals, it feels the same” Hafner says. “However, the family who does not pay for their students’ meals is most likely impacting the district’s ability to provide educational services, because funds that would otherwise be used in the classroom are being diverted to pay for unfunded student meals.” Legislation in Iowa, New Mexico and New York requires districts to serve students a meal, regardless of their ability to pay. A USDA mandate stipulated that by 2017-18, all school meal programs must develop policies for covering meal debt. “Meal debt can become a big constraint on school nutrition professionals’ efforts to serve all students” Pratt-Heavner says. “We all need to work together to find a way to be compassionate to students who don’t have funding in their meal account.”
Lunch-Shaming Schoolchildren: Yes, It’s An Actual Thing
Now, every kid expects a hot lunch at school, even the poor kids. These are all things that happen on a state by state basis as individual schools find ways of reconciling mounting meal plan delinquencies. Schools throughout the U.S. must contend with meal debt, and it is a real problem. According to the School Nutrition Association, more than three-quarters of school districts are grappling with uncollected debt. In June of 2016, with just days left in the school year, Jefferson County resident Jon Bivens neglected to reload the balance for his son’s cafeteria meal plan. One afternoon in the final week of school, his 8-year-old son committed the unspeakable act of buying himself some ice cream with his meal swipe card. The authorities at Gardendale Elementary School did the only logical thing in this situation. Schools may not offset their losses for meal plans using federal dollars. Either you think it’s worth the federal government’s time and money to ensure even cash-strapped students are eating lunch in school, or you feel so strongly that this is a waste of money that you’d sooner see hot meals in the trash than in students’ bellies. There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, helping kids do better in school the way we justified it was, these programs are going to help these kids do better in school and get better jobs. With all of that said, Mulvaney’s remarks suggest we are now consciously moving in the wrong direction, that student hunger is on the verge of growing, that schools are on the verge of massive federal funding cuts, that districts will continue to enjoy total freedom to enforce meal debt as they see fit, and that any number of these schools will appeal to lunch-shaming as at least one tactic through which to do so. If the goal of school is to teach children that it’s a harsh world out there and nobody cares whether you eat or starve, we’re on the right track.