State lawmakers are weighing a proposed bill to limit the embarrassment faced by students whose unpaid school lunch debts add up.
That embarrassment is commonly referred to as “lunch shaming.” The phrase evokes images of school cafeteria employees replacing a student’s preferred hot meal with a cold meal, such as a cheese sandwich, in front of peers.
Meanwhile, local school officials, reached earlier this week, maintain their current policies do not constitute lunch shaming.
The legislation would also allow school districts to collect donations to pay off meal debts.
A review of local policies on meal payments and debts found most do not call for alternative meals.
State Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, is one of the bill’s co-sponsors. Mushinsky described practices like meal substitutions as unnecessary and even hurtful toward children.
“They are just kids, this happens through no fault of their own. Sometimes, parents don’t have enough money to pay for school lunches,” Mushinsky said.
The purpose of the legislation would be to codify into law language ensuring “no child goes hungry and to avoid the embarrassment and hunger that would fall on the child,” Mushinsky said.
Connecticut’s Child Advocate Sarah Eagan recently testified before the legislature’s Committee on Children in favor of the proposed law. She described having a safe place to live and adequate food as “basics” for children.
“Anything that increases access to food for children and reduces shaming is probably good public policy,” Eagan said during her testimony
State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, is co-chair of the committee on children, which heard the proposed bill.
Linehan noted that one of the difficult things is defining lunch shaming.
“I think first we have to know exactly how kids are being shamed, so we don’t allow that to happen,” Linehan said, as she and committee colleagues asked questions following Eagan’s testimony.
In Cheshire, about two-thirds of students participate in the school’s meal programs, including breakfast and lunch.
Vincent Masciana, chief operating officer for the Cheshire Public Schools, said that figure adds up to about 2,500 meals served up daily in all of the town’s schools.
About 15 percent of students across the school district are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, Masciana said.
Students use their school-issued IDs like debit cards, with meal accounts that parents pre-pay into, to pay for their meals.
Masciana said the district’s current school lunch payment policy allows students to use their IDs to pay for lunch and does not call for any lunch substitutions that would single them out.
“We do not shame any students. The policy does say we will allow up to three meals to be charged,” Masciana said, adding that the district in practice is more generous than written policy indicates.
Elementary and middle school-aged students are allowed to charge whatever they need to charge, while high school students have a meal debt cap of $14, Masciana said.
“We remind every student as they're going through the line, if their account balance is low, don't forget to tell mom and dad to send in the check,” Masciana said.
Madeleine Diker, director of food and nutrition services for the Cheshire Public Schools, noted that the district's overall debt balance is currently significantly lower than it had been in years past. Families had previously owed about $7,000 toward school lunches, but now that debt is down to around $500.
Officials were able to reduce that negative balance by making phone calls to families and utilizing donations from local businesses and organizations. Another group of contributors to the district's student meal assistance fund includes recent Cheshire High School graduates, Diker explained.
“The change adds up. There have been some very generous donors,” Diker said.
In Meriden, the school district has offered free breakfast and lunch to all students through the National School Lunch Program's Community Eligibility Provision since the 2018-2019 school year.
The school district qualified for the program because nearly 70 percent of students were considered eligible for free or reduced lunch based on their families' incomes.
Meriden Public Schools Superintendent Mark Benign said the district's “lunch debt problem has gone away” because of that provision.
Susan Maffe, director of food and nutrition services for the Meriden Public Schools, described access to meals as equally essential to students' learning as the access to learning materials and transportation.
“When you think about it a child doesn't pay for books or bus transportation, but they have to pay for lunch. Good nutrition is part of what makes them successful in school,” Maffe said.