Lawmakers want federal measure to end ‘lunch shaming’

The bill would make it illegal to publicly shame students who can’t afford school lunch or have outstanding balances

The U.S. Agriculture Department is requiring districts to adopt policies this month for addressing meal debts and to inform parents at the start of the academic year.
(AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (NEXSTAR/WKBN) – Some lawmakers in Washington want to ban “lunch shaming” in schools across the nation.

The bipartisan bill would make it illegal to publicly shame students who can’t afford to pay for lunch or have outstanding school lunch balances.

New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich said it must stop.

“Don’t single out these kids and give them a lunch that is inferior to send a message that they are somehow different,” he said.

Heinrich’s home state was the first to outlaw lunch shaming—a term coined when schools punished students who couldn’t afford lunch by providing different meals or making them wear wristbands or do extra chores.

“This was the fault of their parents for not settling up their lunch debt, and really, it got pushed off on the children and stigmatized them in a way that made it harder for them to learn,” he said.

Heinrich is sponsoring a bill that would ban lunch shaming and leave it up to the schools to figure out how to pick up the tab.

“I think this is a no-nonsense policy that ought to exist nationwide,” he said.

Cara Baldari, with the bipartisan children’s advocacy group First Focus, said schools should look at paying off lunch debt as an investment.

“It is an investment in our children providing these meals that’s going to help them do well academically; it is going to help all of us,” she said. “So this is a small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, and you get a big bang for that buck.”

She said under the new bill, schools will have more flexibility to talk directly with parents of students with an unpaid lunch balance.

“If it gets to the point where that can’t be addressed, schools can seek funding sources,” Baldari said.

Critics of the of the proposed bill say dishonest parents who can afford to pay may try and take advantage of the system to get free food.

Right now, the bill is pending in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture does have a policy in place, directing public schools to have a plan for students who can’t pay for lunch. That directive goes into effect in the fall and encourages districts not to single out kids.

The policy doesn’t affect the Youngstown City School District as all of the district’s students are offered a free lunch and breakfast.  Susan Paris, Youngstown City Schools’ chief of Food Service, said she has been in school districts where students struggled to afford their meals, however.

“I was in another district and we would give peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milk, and fruit when they didn’t have any money because we didn’t want them to go hungry,” Paris said. “It got to a point where they loved the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”


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