- The Tennessee General Assembly is considering a bill known as the “Tennessee Hunger-Free Students Act” that would allow students on free or reduced lunch to get their meal for free — even if they can't pay for it. The bill would also prohibit schools from singling out students through means such as requiring them to wear something to identify their status, mandating chores to pay for meals and keeping them from participating in activities, Fox17 News reports.
- The bill, which is slated to go before subcommittees this month, is designed to ensure students won't go hungry and that schools don't hold children of any age accountable for school meal debts.
- While the bill would prevent parents from paying any fees or costs related to debt collection, it does allow schools to contact parents regarding debt payment. Schools, under the proposal, would be required to help parents fill out required paperwork if their children are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
School meals not only meet student's physical needs, but they also have been found to boost academic performance. While schools serving low-income students are increasingly taking advantage of the National School Lunch Program's Community Eligibility Provision — which allows all students to eat for free — most schools still have some who qualify for free or reduced-price meals and others that don't. Some families would qualify, but often fail to sign up for the program, perhaps because they have trouble with the paperwork, fear government investigation of their citizenship status, or feel ashamed of requesting aid.
When families that are required to pay for meals fall behind, students are left in a terrible position at school. Some school districts have dealt with the issue by refusing to provide lunch for these students when the debt reaches a certain point or by offering them an alternate “shame lunch” instead. School districts have also not released report cards and diplomas until bills are paid or prevented students from participating in certain optional activities.
In recent years, many states and school districts have put an end to these “lunch shaming” practices that ultimately make students pay the price for unpaid lunch bills. Montana is now also considering such legislation. While these “lunch-shaming” practices may encourage some parents to take care of the debt, they can also impact students emotionally and have a negative effect on school culture.
When the debt piles up, however, districts, many of which are already operating under tight budgets, can start to feel the effects. New York City recently launched a “No Student Goes Hungry” program that was enacted this school year. While the results of that initiative are still to new to evaluate, other states and districts with similar initiatives are beginning to reconsider the idea in light of increasing school lunch debt. For instance, the Warwick School Committee in Warwick, Rhode Island, is taking another look at efforts to reduce lunch shaming because unpaid lunch fees increased by 500% in a single year. The Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas is also reconsidering their more generous school lunch policy as they have amassed $16,500 in unpaid bills in four short months.
The dilemma is not limited to a few locations. An article published by The New Food Economy in January notes that school lunch debt has sky-rocketed across the nation, though the total figure is unknown because the data is not collected. But, according to a December 2018 article in the Washington Post, that figure is nearly $500,000 in the D.C. area alone. And according to the School Nutrition Association, 75% of school districts in the nation had unpaid meal debt in 2018.
While students need to be able to eat without feeling shame, school districts also must be able to balance their nutrition budgets without dipping into the school district’s general fund. And while the Tennessee bill, like others before it, has a noble purpose in mind, it does not offer any solutions as to how school districts can handle the unpaid debt.
Some school districts are relying on donations to fund the effort while others reportedly are increasing pressure on parents by refusing to let them attend graduation ceremonies or reporting them to child protective services if the debts go unpaid for too long. As states and school districts look at crafting policies to protect students in these situations, they also need to craft a plan to cover unpaid debts when they arise.