Legislators Join the Effort to End 'Lunch Shaming' in Schools

Jelisa Castrodale

Earlier this month, a teacher at Jacksboro Elementary School in tiny Jacksboro, Tennessee went viral when she confessed to crying in front of her students when one of the boys in her class said that he didn't have any food at home.

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"He asked when the lady that puts food in his backpack was coming. It caught me off guard, because it is our guidance counselor and I wasn’t sure what he needed," Brooke Goins wrote on Facebook. "He looked at me and said, 'Those little [SpaghettiOs] (as he made a small circle with his hand), we don’t have those at my house, but when I do have them they give me a warm belly and help me sleep.' I lost it, I cried in front of 20 little people. No kid should be hungry, ever."

Goins wrote that she and some of her colleagues put their money together to buy some food for the boy. After her post was shared some 39,000 times—and after a number of people started to ask how they could help—she said that the school was starting a food pantry for its students. Earlier this year, stories of "lunch shaming"—denying students food or providing meager meals when they accrue a negative balance of just a few dollars—sparked outrage and even led to overturned policies in some districts.

According to the American Federation of Teachers, educators rank nutrition and hunger among its top three priorities for children's health. But a recently proposed bill could ensure that all students will get breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school. on Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced the Universal School Meals Program Act, which would prohibit schools from denying any kid from eating at school, regardless of their family's income level. (New York City public schools already have a similar policy in place.)

"In the richest country in [the] history of the world, when the top one percent are making more than they ever have before, it is simply outrageous that one in five children will go hungry this year," Sanders said. "Today, I am proud to propose legislation to make sure that no student goes hungry at a public school and to eliminate the stigma surrounding children who receive free or reduced lunch."

Under the current rules, only students from homes with a combined income below 185 percent of the poverty line (defined as $47,600 for a family of four) are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. "Unfortunately, not all eligible students participate in the program and many students whose families struggle to make ends meet are deemed ineligible," the bill says. "We will eliminate the stigma some children fear of being labeled 'poor' by their classmates. Every child deserves to eat."

The program proposed by Sanders and Omar would eliminate that minimum income requirement for at-school meals and, perhaps just as importantly, it would also give low-income families $60 per month on an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card to be used for food during summer breaks.

In addition, the bill would reimburse school districts for any outstanding meal debts their students currently owe, and it would "stop the harassment of parents and students" over their school meal balances. According to one study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly 99 percent of schools with unpaid meal costs took action to collect that money, including giving the student an 'alternate' meal until the balance was paid, withholding the student's grades, or using collection agencies. One Pennsylvania school district even told parents that their kids could be placed in foster care if they didn't pay their outstanding lunch debts.

But in addition to the proposed legislation by Sanders and Omar, some states are already taking action. Last week, California governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that guarantees that all students in the state will get a school lunch, regardless of whether their parents or guardians have an outstanding debt. SB-265 also ends the practice of "alternative" meals for students with unpaid lunch bills, and it will also "ensure that the pupil [with a meal debt] is not shamed or treated differently from other pupils."

But California, as it it in many legislative respects, is the exception. Only a handful of states have passed or are even considering legislation to ban the practice. Should the Universal School Meals Program Act be brought up for a vote, it would finally standardize the sentiment that all kids, regardless of family income, deserve to eat a decent meal.