A proposed food rights bill in Maine would prohibit public schools from punishing or stigmatizing students who are unable to pay for a meal.
You’ve probably heard the anecdotal stories by now — a child, typically in front of their peers, is told he or she cannot have a hot lunch because of a delinquent account.
Sometimes, an already served lunch gets tossed in the trash and cafeteria workers place stickers or stamps on a child’s body as a way to remind parents to settle their child’s lunch account.
Lawmakers on the Maine Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs voted to pass a bill that would forbid public schools from “lunch shaming” a child who is unable to pay for a meal or has an overdue account balance.
The legislation would require public schools to serve lunch to a student who requests the meal “regardless of the student’s inability to pay for the school meal or failure in the past to pay for school meals.”
Sometimes a student is given a replacement meal, such as a cheese sandwich or a bagel, but the Maine food shaming bill would prohibit that, insisting that every child have an opportunity to eat the same meal otherwise he or she may feel embarrassed.
“Should (districts) balance the lunch ledger by humiliating students?” Rep. Janice Dodge argued at a news conference, according to the Lewiston Sun Journal.
The bill would also require that schools take up any lunch debt conversations directly with parents and leave the child out of it.
“It is unacceptable to put a spotlight on a child because their parents have not been paying a bill, for any reason,” state Sen. Rebecca Millett told the Portland Press Herald. “It is not OK.”
State Sen. Shenna Bellows added, “I can’t even imagine how terrible I would feel if a trusted figure — whether my principal or a lunch lady — did something like these examples to me.”
The Maine School Nutrition Association is opposing the bill, concerned that parents won’t bother settling debts if they know their child will be fed without consequence.
David Roberts, food service director in Maine School Administrative District 52, said he supports the idea behind the bill but believes districts will be stuck with “skyrocketing” debt.
Roberts cited statistics from the Denver school system, who adopted a similar bill, and watched as unpaid lunch debt rose from $13,000 to $356,000 within a year.
State Rep. Heidi Sampson said while she is against shaming students, telling a child that his or her account is overdue is not shaming.
“We are coddling our kids so much,” Sampson said. “What are they going to do when life really starts throwing things at them?”
“So one day they were embarrassed — it’s a little bit of a hysterical reaction.”
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