Mass. Bill To Prevent 'Meal Shaming' Of Schoolchildren Unlikely To Pass This Session

May 16, 2018
Originally published on May 15, 2018 7:40 pm

Massachusetts lawmakers have apparently shelved a bill that aims to prevent the so-called “meal shaming” of schoolchildren who have not paid for their lunches.

Meal shaming is what happens when students are publicly denied their school meals because their lunch account is in arrears. Proponents of the bill, which lawmakers said Tuesday needs more study, worry that meal shaming harms children.

Susan Timmons, a Northbridge High School student, told the Legislature’s education committee on Tuesday that her younger sister once ordered a turkey dinner from the school cafeteria, only to find out that the lunch had put her over the school’s $11 credit cap.

“So my sister’s hot meal, which was a larger hot meal than compared to most, was taken away and replaced by a cheese sandwich in a plastic bag, with the letters ‘CS’ written on it,” Timmons said. Her sister couldn’t eat the sandwich, either. The Sharpie ink bled through the bag.

“She cried and cried and cried,” Timmons said, “until my mother went and picked her up from school and vowed never to let her child owe money again.”

The legislation filed this session urges school districts and parents to work out the lunch funds owed without punishing, or even involving, the student.

“It’s really about the school district and the parent. Not the child,” state Sen. Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said. “We should not be humiliating and shaming our children.”

Several of those who spoke before lawmakers echoed the idea that school meal debt is a burden adults should bear — not kids.

“The kids just get caught in this situation of, they appear, and they are the ones who are asked for money,” said Nancy Fisher, a dietitian who works with Boston Public Schools’ food and nutrition services. “They don’t earn the money, and they’re not responsible for the economics of running a school food service. They’re just trapped in it.”

Fisher believes there should be more compassion for struggling families and their students.

“Sometimes I think adults forget about the higher purpose,” she said. “They forget about these children who are hungry, and may not have food security, and they are the ones who are in trouble.”

Others, however, argue the issue is more complex.

Maria Hall of the School Nutrition Association of Massachusetts says while the organization believes no child should ever be shamed, public schools also need to have a handle on their finances.

“The assumption here is that all students that aren’t paying the debt — all families who are not paying the debt — can’t pay their debt. But in a lot of cases, they can pay their debt, but choose not to pay the debt,” Hall said. “So with those families with legitimate debt, how do we go after collecting that?”

She warns that some families might not pay for lunches if they know it’s the school’s policy to feed all students.

As the education committee has now given the bill a study order, it is unlikely that the bill will pass this legislative session. Massachusetts Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, chairs the House education committee and said it will keep looking into the matter.

“We need more time,” she said, to come up with a bill that will directly address the problem.

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