Massachusetts legislators want the state to take concrete action to stop damaging policies related to “meal shaming” — refusing to give a student hot lunch if they don’t have money or their parents have fallen behind on payments — in public schools.
The bills, filed by state Sen. Cynthia Creem (D) and Rep. Andres Vargas (D), would make it illegal for any school personnel or volunteer to publicly identify a student who was unable to pay for a meal, or to dispose of an already served meal due to a student’s inability to pay.
The legislation also prohibits schools from withholding extracurricular activities or report cards from students who are unable to pay for meals, or from requiring parents or guardians to pay fees in excess of the actual amount owed for school lunches. The joint education committee will take up the bills on Tuesday.
School districts across the country often resort to extreme, humiliating measures to reduce school lunch debt. Some students are refused a hot meal, and given a cold cheese sandwich instead. Others have their hands stamped or are forced to wear wristbands to indicate they were unable to pay for a hot lunch.
Some cafeteria workers are instructed to throw away a hot meal if the student doesn’t have enough money to pay for it; Stacy Koltiska, a lunchroom staffer in Pennsylvania, decided to quit out of “moral obligation” in 2016 instead of throwing a boy’s hot meal in the trash.
A recent report from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute found many of these same practices are common across the state: throwing away a hot meal and giving a student a cheese sandwich if they’ve exceeded their meal cap; punishing students and sometimes their siblings for meal debt; authorizing the use of collection agencies to recover meal debt.
The newly introduced bills follow a handful of other states that have recently passed legislation to make sure children are fed and not punished for their inability to pay for a hot lunch.
Last year, New Mexico became the first state in the country to outlaw lunch shaming. State Sen. Michael Padilla (D) said his experience growing up in multiple foster homes, and being forced to do chores in the school cafeteria to earn his lunch, drove him to introduce the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights.
Texas passed its own legislation last year, despite the objections of a group of far-right legislators. Legislation passed in California, Oregon, and Washington state similarly prohibits school districts from withholding food or giving children a smaller meal if they are unable to pay.