We have all seen the news stories — a child being denied a lunch in the cafeteria, a student being offered a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich instead of a hot lunch, a child who saw their lunch meal thrown in the trash on their birthday because they had accrued $9 in unpaid school meals fees while their free school meals application was being processed, and even a district threatening to put children with outstanding school meals debt in foster care.
While many states, such as California and New Mexico, are taking steps to address school meals debt and ensure all students have access to the nutrition they need to thrive, the stories keep coming out. We need a national solution.
School meals debt is a longstanding problem for families and schools across the country. Students who just miss the cutoff to receive free school meals through the federal School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program, and instead qualify for reduced-price school meals, can be charged a maximum of 30 cents per day for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. Those who do not qualify for reduced-price school meals are charged the meal price set by the district. Both of these groups, reduced-price and paid, can accrue school meals debt.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 mandated the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to examine the issue. In response, USDA issued guidance that required schools participating in the federal school lunch or school breakfast programs to establish policies and procedures to address the challenge of unpaid school meals fees. However, this guidance did not establish any national standards for what districts or states must include in their policies, and did not provide any baseline protections for children and families.
Fortunately, some lawmakers are paying attention and have proposed effective strategies to end school meals shaming.
The No Shame at School Act, introduced by Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), would prohibit schools from taking action that stigmatizes or shames students who cannot pay their school meals fees. It also would result in more eligible children being certified for free or reduced-price school meals, and would provide schools retroactive school meal reimbursement for students who are certified for free or reduced-price school meals later in the school year.
The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2019, introduced by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), would prohibit schools from taking action that stigmatizes or shames students who cannot pay their school meals fees. It also requires all communication that is related to unpaid school meals fees be directed to the child’s parent or guardian. Finally, it encourages schools to adopt best practices that ensure eligible students have access to free and reduced-price school meals and to increase efforts to reduce unpaid school meals fees.
We need your help to make this a reality. Urge your Members of Congress to cosponsor the No Shame at School Act and the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2019 to ensure students in every state will not be embarrassed or humiliated for not having the funds needed for a meal.
Check out FRAC’s website for more information about school lunch shaming and unpaid school meals debt.