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Meal Shaming, Denying Food to Students Spurs MA Lawmakers to Action

Some lower-income students would rather skip lunch than go to the cafeteria and be lectured or denied a hot meal because their parents owe the school money. (Wokandapix/Pixabay)
Some lower-income students would rather skip lunch than go to the cafeteria and be lectured or denied a hot meal because their parents owe the school money. (Wokandapix/Pixabay)
May 15, 2018

BOSTON – A cold sandwich is what students may get instead of the hot lunch they wanted at some Massachusetts public schools. They often are humiliated, sometimes to tears, when denied their lunch, and some are even confronted about their parents' debt by cafeteria workers.

State Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, and Rep. Andres Vargas, D-Haverhill, have filed a bill to change this practice. Their concerns stem from a report by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute which found that students without money in hand can end up hungry the whole day.

Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst at the institute, says families often get into debt unwittingly, not knowing that they are in fact eligible for free school meals.

"The children end up getting a cheese sandwich, or 'sun-butter' sandwich, which can be very humiliating for these children, who often are teased by peers or so embarrassed they simply don't eat the sandwich," she says.

Besides swapping hot lunches for sandwiches, the report says punishments schools use to collect unpaid meal debt include taking away extracurricular activities, denying report cards and withholding graduation caps and gowns.

A joint legislative hearing on the bill, S.2390, is today from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. in Room B1 at the State Capitol.

Baker says the bill tries to elevate the problem to an adult discussion instead of using students as pawns. She adds the legislation would require districts to talk directly to parents and not allow students to be punished for meal debt, and also be proactive and help families get benefits that trigger free-meal status.

"It would also require school districts that have a high percentage of economically disadvantaged children to apply for a federal option to give all the children in that school, or school district, free school meals," she adds.

The bill's sponsors say a lack of statewide policy puts kids in harm's way, leaves teachers struggling to feed hungry students and cafeteria workers in tough positions with little or no guidance.

Linda Barr, Public News Service - MA