In August 2017, the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) received a call from a social services agency north of Boston. A rising eighth-grader had contacted the agency because he thought his high school would not let him start school after Labor Day unless his mother paid off $220 in unpaid meal debt. His mother was severely disabled and not fluent in English. The 13-year-old was calling for help, advocating for himself.

MLRI learned that the district was “only” denying his participation in extracurricular activities like sports until his mom paid the $220. When digging further, MLRI discovered that the district had failed to directly certify the teen for free school meal status. He was getting Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits the entire time the meal debt was accruing but a school district administrative error never picked him up, subjecting him to harsh school meal debt policies. Thus began MLRI’s quest to never let another child suffer the indignities of unpaid meal debt.

Nearly four years later, on October 14, 2021, Governor Charlie Baker signed, An Act Promoting Student Nutrition, Chapter 62 of the Acts of 2021 into law. This legislation was championed by State Senator Cynthia Stone Creem and State Representatives Andy Vargas and Sean Garballey.

Massachusetts state law now requires:

  • School districts cannot toss hot meals, swap out cold cheese sandwiches, deny students participation in non-fee extracurricular activities, deny graduation exercises, or refer children to child protective agencies solely due to meal debt.
  • Districts cannot add additional fees to unpaid meal debt, effectively ending school districts’ use of debt collection agencies.
  • Districts are required to take steps to maximize federal nutrition reimbursement and minimize debt on families, including more robust direct certification practices, especially where a family has any meal debt. Parents and guardians must be notified of meal debt directly, not involving students.
  • School districts and individual schools with higher rates of low-income students, those with 50% or more Identified Student Percentage (ISP), are required to attend trainings and apply for the Community Eligibility (CEP) option if eligible. (Note: While we are very proud of this legislative victory, if the US Senate passes the child nutrition provisions included in the pending Build Back Better Act, we will look for opportunities to strengthen the CEP requirements in the state law.)

Roadmap to Success: From Research to Action

This legislation was the culmination of research that MLRI began in 2018 when we issued a report, Denying Food and Shaming Children: Unpaid School Meal Policies in Massachusetts, that examined unpaid school meal policies in 154 school districts in the state and how they can become punitive towards children in low-income households. MLRI’s report was inspired by the work of the Western Center for Law and Poverty.

In our March 2018 report we found:

  • Dozens of school districts barred students from extracurricular activities, graduation exercises and receipt of report cards due to unpaid meal debt.
  • Districts often used debt collection agencies that added on additional fees.
  • Most districts implemented “meal caps” on the number of breakfasts and lunches that could be charged before a student is barred from meals or given an “alternate” cheese stick for breakfast, or cold cheese sandwich for lunch. In fact, school cafeteria workers were often instructed to “swap out” the child’s hot meal for a cold sandwich, and toss the hot meal served to the child.
  • Nearly 30% did not post their meal debt polices, and roughly 12% buried the policies in School Committee Policy Handbooks.

July 2018

With little time in the legislative session to move the bill, the Massachusetts Legislature passed language in the state’s FY2019 annual appropriations budget (Line Item 7053-1090), that required all school districts to make public their school meal debt policies by September 30, 2018, and to notify parents of these policies. Quite a few districts elected to drop their harsh policies, but many persisted. The campaign to end “meal shaming” practices via state law continued.

2019

MLRI collaborated with Project Bread and MA School Nutrition Association members to revise and refile the bill in a new legislative session to both address unpaid meal debt as well as require school districts and individual schools eligible for CEP to adopt this option.

2020-Present

Movement on the bill was delayed in part due to COVID with most MA districts doing remote learning in 2020. After Massachusetts passed the successful Breakfast after the Bell legislation – thanks to the incredible work of the Greater Boston Food Bank, Project Bread and the Rise and Shine Coalition – MLRI, Project Bread and members of the No Student Hungry Coalition doubled down on securing passage of this critical legislation. We received incredible support and technical assistance from FRAC every step of the way.

While eliminating school “meal shaming” practices is a critical step in the fight to ensure no child goes hungry, the only solution for both students and school districts is universal free school meals. MLRI is a proud partner of Project Bread’s #FeedKids Campaign in the quest to ensure every Massachusetts student has access to a nutritious meal and is ready to learn.