A six-year-old girl, whose family income qualified her for free or reduced-price school lunch, had her meal pulled away in the cafeteria line, thrown in the trash and replaced with a cold cheese sandwich.
This “lunch shaming” went on for a month, so the child’s mother called Maryland Hunger Solutions for help.
Poor communication and a technical error triggered the action, Julia Gross, anti-hunger program associate with the non-profit group, told members of the Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Tuesday.
But it was “inexcusable,” Gross said. “As her mother said, she’s six, she doesn’t understand that. She’s never had anyone not feed her before.”
Some schools use “lunch shaming” as an incentive to collect unpaid bills for school-provided lunches.
Sen. Clarence K. Lam (D-Howard) has introduced legislation, Senate Bill 760, that would ban the practice in Maryland public schools.
An identical House bill sponsored by Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s) is slated to be heard in the House Ways and Means Committee later this month.
Lam’s legislation would mandate that each county’s board of education establish and publicize a protocol for debt collection that would eliminate stigmatizing children and avoid discussing debt with the child. If a school does provide different lunches to students who owe, that lunch would have to comply with USDA guidelines and must be available schoolwide.
“Currently in the state, there is no standardization of meal charge policies, and so for many families, it’s unclear what would happen to them if they were unable to pay for their meals,” Lam said.
Under Lam’s bill, the Maryland State Department of Education would be responsible for tracking lunch debt. Also, schools would be required to help families get information about free or reduced-price lunch programs.
Penalties for debt vary across school districts. Lam said some make students wear stamps or wristbands that show they owe. Some have students do chores. Some have staff throw the student’s hot meal in the trash and replace it with cold, less nutritious lunches — like the cheese sandwich.
Some have threatened to stop children who owe from attending after school events, like graduation.
“I feel that students should not be penalized and forced to choose between being able to pay for a lunch and having to decide whether they would be embarrassed by the school or be able to … have a nutritious meal,” Lam told the committee.
Baltimore County school teacher and Maryland State Education Association President Cheryl Bost told the committee that she sees this as an “anti-bullying bill.”
“As teachers, we would never accept allowing anyone to bully or shame one of our students,” she said. “This is even worse when it comes as the result of an unfortunate situation well outside of the child’s direct control.”
Bost said that she has walked through lunch lines with her students and paid for their meals so that they would be able to eat, and that around the holidays instead of exchanging gifts, teachers will pay off student debts.
“We want to make sure through this bill that everyone is aware of the alternatives, that there are alternatives in place and that no child is ever shamed or disrespected because they can’t pay for their lunch,” Bost said.
Prince George’s County school board member K. Alexander Wallace said that this phenomenon is not new and that he was lunch shamed decades ago by the same school system that he now represents.
Wallace said that this bill would protect families and ensure equity for students across the state.
“As this General Assembly considered other key legislation to address our state’s public schools equitable funding, let us all subscribe to the conviction that hunger is just as big of a barrier to academic excellence, as is the absence of any other educational supply,” Wallace said, “and that a student’s empty stomach is just as dangerous to their success in school and in society as is a student’s empty mind, and that we always provide the necessary support that feed both.”
Opposing the bill was President of the Maryland School Nutrition Association, Kristen Sudzina. She said that, although she supports the intent of the legislation, it would put an undue financial burden on local school systems to find a way to pay for these lunches.
“We understand. We don’t want any child to go hungry,” Sudzina said. “However, we have to be … fiscally responsible.”
Sudzina said she has seen counties implement policies similar to the ones proposed, but that doing so caused lunch debt to increase exponentially.
Lam said the bill has the potential to introduce more families to free and reduced-lunch programs and to start dialogues within school systems that could create alternative approaches, but that it ultimately intends to end the practice of lunch shaming.
“Some of the provisions here are directly to ensure that the student does not have … a lunch thrown away right in front of them or that they’re prohibited from graduating, etc, etc.,” Lam said. “Are those provisions that you can still support?”
“Yes, wholeheartedly,” Sudzina said.