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Would School 'Lunch Shaming' End Under Federal Bill?

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A group of federal lawmakers has proposed a bill that would ban "lunch shaming" in school cafeterias around the country. But some child-nutrition advocates say some problematic responses to unpaid school lunch bills would continue, even if the measure is enacted.

Versions of the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act were introduced this week in the House and Senate by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including four from New Mexico, which recently passed its own state-level measure banning the practice. 

Lunch shaming is a term child-hunger advocates use to describe practices that single out children with unpaid school meal debts, a problem that has long vexed cafeteria directors, who operate meal programs under tight budgets. The practice has gotten greater attention after recent articles in the New York Times highlighted the issue.

"No student should be humiliated in front of their peers because their parents can't afford to pay for a meal," said U.S. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M. "It is shocking and shameful that this happens to hungry children, but nearly half of all school districts use some form of lunch shaming. This bipartisan bill will put an end to these draconian practices and help ensure that students can focus on their studies without looking over their shoulder to see their friends pointing fingers."

The bill would require schools to communicate directly with parents about low school meal balances, It would prohibit them from requiring students who can't pay to do things like completing chores or wear wristbands or hand stamps to let their parents know they need lunch money, a news release says. It would also prohibit a school from throwing out a child's meal if they determined he or she couldn't pay after the food had been put on a tray.

"The bill also aims to make the process for applying for free and reduced price lunch applications simpler by expressing that it is the sense of Congress that schools should provide these applications more effectively to the families who need them, coordinate with other programs to ensure that homeless and foster children are enrolled for free meals, and set up online systems to make paying for meals easier for parents when possible," the release says.

But school food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel writes that "a closer reading of the federal Anti-Lunch Shaming Act reveals that by far the most common form of lunch shaming—giving a child an alternate meal, usually a cold cheese sandwich—would not be prohibited if the law were enacted. Nor would the law ban the outright denial of a meal to a debt-ridden child."

And a "sense of Congress" statement about enrolling children in free meal programs comes with no enforcement, which means it might not change things all that much, Siegel writes.

School food workers have long asked for guidance on how to handle unpaid meals. While most can agree that practices like discarding full trays of food should not be allowed, simply banning all forms of "lunch shaming" doesn't answer the root question of how schools should respond when a child can't pay. Should there be any limit to how many overdrawn meals a school provides? If not, how should they manage their already tight food budgets? The School Nutrition Association wrote in a recent statement:

"Unfortunately, for under-funded school meal programs, unpaid school meal debt can become a critical problem that can impact the quality of meals for all students. SNA's 2016 School Nutrition Operations Report found that about three quarters of school districts had an unpaid student meal debt at the end of last school year, an increase from 70.8% of districts reporting debt in 2014. Additionally, 37.7% report that the number of students within the paid or reduced-price category who do not have funds to pay for breakfast or lunch has increased from the 2014/15 to 2015/16 school years."

As I wrote recently, regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture require schools to set consistent policies for unpaid meals by the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. Those policies could include alternative meals for students who can't pay.

How do you think schools should handle unpaid meal debt?


Further reading about school lunches and student nutrition:

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