Harrisburg – Pennsylvania lawmakers at both the state and federal levels are introducing proposals to end “lunch shaming,” the practice of singling out students with unpaid balances in their school lunch account.
Speaking on the Senate Floor Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) spoke about his proposal, which he recently put out to members for support in the form of a co-sponsorship memo.
“To a child, particularly to a low-income family struggling to put the funds together to ensure their son or daughter has the opportunity to enjoy a lunch during the day, this is a very important issue to them,” he said. “Many families that struggle, they struggle oftentimes to replace [a] balance that’s been depleted and don’t have the ability to support that.”
He said currently, even in Pennsylvania, schools have taken steps that ostracize and stigmatize students that have a low or unpaid balance on their school lunch account by taking actions like stamping a student’s hand or arm indicating they have a balance due, providing a sub-par or different lunch and/or requiring the students to perform chores in and around the school in order to pay off a balance.
Costa called these steps “unconscionable” acts of student-shaming – something his co-sponsorship memo called “a Scarlet Letter” that "is embarrassing to an innocent child, and it can lead to more harm being done to the child by their peers” in addition to their everyday hunger issues.
“These individuals need to have an appropriate lunch as they go about their school day,” he said. “About 500,000 – one in three with hunger insecurity – are our children and it makes it very difficult in a learning environment to understand and appreciate what you learn when your stomach is growling. That should not be what’s coming to mind, nor should they be shamed into having to deal with this.”
While not yet in bill form, Costa said his pending legislation will require school districts to serve meals to children, regardless of whether the child's family owes money to the school. It will further require districts to implement policies for determining if children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, methods for notifying parents of the situation and requiring districts to determine if further intervention is necessary. Moreover, the bill will prohibit schools from marking children in any way if their family owes money for lunches.
“We believe that this is a very, very important piece of legislation that would require school districts to act accordingly and not to serve as bullies along those lines,” he said.
Costa hoped to have the legislation passed in time to allow schools to prepare for its requirements for the coming school year.
At the federal level, Pennsylvania senior US Sen. Bob Casey has joined with Senate Republicans and a bipartisan group in the US House of Representatives to introduce the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act.
The legislation, like Costa’s, would prohibit schools from engaging in shaming actions like requiring students to wear wristbands or handstamps or perform chores in the event of a low or unpaid balance, and mandates that schools work directly with parents to resolve any lunch account balance issues.
"It is completely absurd that students would be shamed at school based on their inability to purchase food,” said Casey in a prepared statement. “I am confident that this legislation will do its part to stop students suffering from humiliation for circumstances outside of their control. This is bullying and I am saddened that we have to write legislation to ensure it ends.”
While noble in purpose, some in the education community have wondered whether or not the federal and state proposals are a bit premature.
The United States Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program, is requiring school food agencies – the local school unit responsible for administering the program – to develop new policies that ensure no negative impact is felt by students due to a delinquent debt on a pre-paid school lunch balance.
“In establishing policies regarding collection of delinquent debt, state agencies and SFAs should ensure their efforts do not have a negative impact on the children involved and instead focus primarily on adults in the household responsible for providing funds for meal purchases,” read recent guidance from the USDA on the matter. “State agencies and SFAs also are encouraged to consider whether the benefits of potential collections outweigh the costs which would be incurred to achieve those collections.”
The new policies are required to be adopted and transferred to the USDA by July 1.
In April, New Mexico became the first state to work to mitigate lunch-shaming by enacting the “Hunger-Free Students Bill of Rights Act” that requires school lunch parity regardless of ability to pay and for actions to be taken to eliminate lunch-shaming.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.