By CAROL ABBEY-MENSAH
Capital News Service
LANSING — A Southeast Michigan lawmaker is renewing an effort to prohibit schools from stigmatizing students who owe lunch money or can’t afford to buy a school meal.
The practice, known as lunch shaming, sometimes involves kitchen staff throwing away students’ hot lunches and offering them cold sandwiches instead.
While the purpose is to push parents to settle their children’s debts, it also embarrasses the students because they’re identified and sometimes picked on by their peers.
To curb lunch shaming in school districts, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D–Flint, has reintroduced what he called the “Hunger Free Students Bill of Rights. “
“Sometimes students will receive a substandard lunch, or they are forced to perform chores or wear a stigmatizing wristband,” Ananich said.
His bill aims to prevent such behavior by ensuring that school boards not publicly identify or stigmatize students who cannot pay for a school meal or owe a lunch debt.
“No child should be publicly embarrassed in front of their peers due to a low balance,” Ananich said. “Matters of lunch account balances should be taken up with students’ parents.”
All the Great Lakes states have introduced legislation or programs to tackle lunch shaming. Minnesota was the first to pass a lunch shaming law in 2014.
Apart from preventing stigmatization, the bill would require school boards to ensure the confidentiality of pupils who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
A similar bill was unsuccessful in 2018.
He predicts that as more parents, students and teachers share stories of lunch shaming policies they see in their schools, more legislators will have an interest in working with him on the legislation.
Harmony Lloyd, who lives in Grand Blanc, inspired Ananich’s legislation. She became interested in lunch shaming in 2018 after she heard of a local child’s lunch thrown away due to lunch debt.
“I vaguely recollected hearing stories of kids having lunch debt,” Lloyd said. “But it wasn’t until my son came home and told me the story that I really began researching the issue.”
Lloyd called a school cafeteria worker to check out the story.
“She confirmed that this was the policy and that it happened often,” Lloyd said. “She also shared that the cafeteria workers hated to do it but were told they would be fired if they gave away any lunches.”
After she brought the issue up at a school board meeting and had a friend donate money to support the indebted students, other parents contacted her to share similar stories.
“This is when I reached out to the media and to Sen. Ananich,” Lloyd said.
Lori Adkins, a child nutrition consultant with Oakland Schools, said a bill like Ananich’s could help with the problem, but there must also be good communication and understanding among parents, school districts and food service workers.
“The food service workers must understand what the policies are so that they will be able to deal with issues like this appropriately,” Adkins said.
When it comes to communicating with parents, some school districts are already putting in effort.
“School districts send emails to parents telling them about [overdue] balances, but sometimes the parents can’t pay because they have fallen on hard times,” Adkins said.
The bill is pending in the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness.
Carol Abbey-Mensah writes for Great Lakes Echo.