Sep. 23—BOSTON — School districts would be banned from "lunch shaming" students whose parents don't put enough money in their online meal accounts under a proposal up for a vote in the state Senate on Thursday.
The legislation, which passed the House of Representatives in July, would require high-poverty school districts to enroll in a federal program that provides free breakfast and lunch to students.
Supporters say the move would boost nutrition among students, close achievement gaps, and help the state rope in more money from federal nutrition programs.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity across our commonwealth, and it's affecting our children," said Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, who backs the proposal. "Outside of the home, our kids spend most of their time at school and they should have access to healthy and nutritious meals."
Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, who co-sponsored the House version of the bill, said it will "feed more kids, eliminate meal debt shaming and stigma, and maximize federal resources for schools."
"We've got a historically high percentage of economically disadvantaged students across the state as a result of the pandemic," he said.
Under the proposal, high-poverty school districts — where 60% or more of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch — would be required to participate in the Community Eligibility Program that provides federal funding for meals.
Vargas said there would be no cost to the state for implementing the new law, and districts could seek a hardship waiver if they decide not to implement the requirements.
The federal Community Eligibility Program uses a formula based on the percentage of low-income students eligible for free or reduced-price meals to reimburse districts for the cost in four-year periods. That means even if the number of students who qualify drops, the same level of funding would be sustained for four years.
A similar proposal was filed in a previous legislative session several years ago but lawmakers sent the bill back for further study.
The measure also aims to end the practice of "lunch shaming" by prohibiting school districts from serving "alternative meals" such as cheese sandwiches to students unable to pay their meal fees or whose meal account is in arrears.
"Our cafeteria and student nutrition workers want to serve and feed our kids a healthy meal, they don't want to act as debt collectors," Vargas said. "Schools will still be able to implement their own policies for collecting unpaid meal debt, but nobody will embarrass, stigmatize or punish students."
Food insecurity has become a major issue during the pandemic.
More than 1.2 million Massachusetts workers were left jobless by shutdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19, and many families are now struggling to put food on the table. Requests for food stamps and public assistance have skyrocketed.
Gov. Charlie Baker convened a task force to deal with the issue and is providing state grants to regional food banks to help keep them stocked.
Many school districts have expanded emergency meal programs that were a lifeline for students amid the shutdown.
The state received a waiver during the pandemic that provided federal funding for districts serving emergency meals.
Several communities north of Boston — including Salem, Lynn, Haverhill and Lawrence — now offer breakfast after the bell. Some districts receive financial assistance from anti-hunger groups for their programs.
A bill signed by Baker last year requires districts in high-poverty communities to provide free lunch and breakfast in the classroom when the school day begins but requires parents to submit income documentation in order to qualify.
Under the bill set for a vote Thursday, students in those low-income districts would automatically qualify for free meals regardless of their family's income.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.