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Tennessee's Hunger-Free Students Act Faces Defeat

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is urging districts to stop embarrassing and singling-out students who don't have enough money for lunch. (SpecialBlendBrands, Twenty/20)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is urging districts to stop embarrassing and singling-out students who don't have enough money for lunch. (SpecialBlendBrands, Twenty/20)
March 12, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It's National Nutrition Month, and two pieces of proposed anti-bullying legislation have lawmakers engaged in a public war of words.

Senate Bill 606 and House Bill 827, known as the Tennessee Hunger-Free Students Act, would prohibit schools from taking certain actions against students who can't pay for school lunch, and would make sure a meal is provided to the child regardless. The bill's sponsor, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, said it would stop school employees from throwing away a served meal if the student could not pay, and also would prohibit schools from punishing or shaming students about the debt.

Last week, the K-12 Senate subcommittee voted 4-2 to kill the bill. Clemmons said he's disappointed that a nonpartisan piece of legislation failed, but he isn't giving up.

"Children should not be deprived of educational or extracurricular activities because of something that is not their fault,” Clemmons said. “At its essence, this bill is an anti-bullying bill that seeks to protect our children from stigmatization or being denied participation in school-related activities in the event they've incurred a meal debt."

Rep. Kirk Haston, R-Lobelville, a coach and teacher, was the only Republican to vote in favor of the bill. Those who voted against the bill cited concern about its fiscal impact on schools. Clemmons said a child should never be treated differently because of a meal debt.

Critics of the bill said some school districts already are relying on donations to fund the effort. Others are increasing pressure on parents by refusing to let them attend graduation ceremonies or reporting them to Child Protective Services for unpaid debt.

Clemmons said Tennessee needs to continue crafting policies that will allow districts to collect unpaid amounts without shaming students.

"There's no concern this simply prohibits schools from treating children differently. They're still allowed to attempt to work with parents to collect the meal debt. They're simply just prohibited from punishing the child,” he said. “Of course, it's no fault of the child if they've incurred a meal debt."

Almost 50 percent of students in the state already receive free or reduced-price lunch. But those who can't pay could be forced to do additional chores, wear a wristband during school mealtimes, miss lunch altogether or even miss graduation.

Antionette Kerr, Public News Service - TN