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Research Shows New Policies and Transparency needed for School Lunch Policy-California School Districts Take the Lead

The Western Center on Law and Poverty, representing over 4 million poor Californians, announced today an inventory report of school lunch debt policies of the 205 most populous school districts in California. The findings show 63% of California schools did not post any formal policies on their website while 35% of school policies analyzed either refused students a meal or shamed them for having school meal debt

“We knew there was a problem, we just had no idea how big it was and were horrified by what we learned,” said Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, co-author of the report.

As of July 1st, 2017, all schools will be required by federal regulations to set a policy. Unfortunately, there are currently no federal or state requirements to ensure that these newly required policies be made public or that they prevent the differential treatment of students whose families owe school lunch debt. California Senate Bill 250, authored by Senator Robert Hertzberg, would do this.

In advance of the report, Western Center’s early findings were shared with local officials of districts with some of the worst policies, state lawmakers and interested news outlets. Some school districts have already taken action. As of July, San Juan Unified School District has stopped stamping the hands of children who owed lunch money. “This was an easy call. Children should never be subject to adverse actions because they don’t have enough money, especially in a public school environment,” Paula Villescaz, who is a new member of the San Juan Unified School Board and helped change the policy.

As of August, Los Angeles School District (LAUSD) has ended their “shame sandwich” policy, which directed school lunch service employees to serve children half of a cheese sandwich if their parents owed debt.  At a roundtable convened by the Service Employees International Union Employees (SEIU) to discuss the policy, classified school employees required to comply with the rule reported that they didn’t like implementing the policy which they said also resulted in them throwing away food that could have been eaten by children they knew were hungry.

The LAUSD policy posted this month, ends the “shame sandwich” rule and replaces it with a policy ensuring that no child will be denied food. “We are proud that LAUSD has ushered in this new policy as we believe it is important to make sure that all children feel welcome at school and that the lack of food never interferes with their full participation,” says Joseph K. Vaughn, M.Ed the new Director of the District’s Food Services Division.  The people tasked with implementing the rule feel the same. “I work in the cafeteria for an LAUSD school. I’m proud that the District took the lead on getting rid of this policy. We work hard to ensure that every child is getting the nutrition they need to focus on the lessons in the classroom,” said Thresa Thomas, a Food Service Worker at LAUSD.  The new LAUSD policy can be found online here:

“I commend LAUSD on taking the lead in ending this shameful half-a-cheese sandwich policy and taking it a step further to fully eradicate hunger during the school day for all children attending district schools,” said Senator Robert Hertzberg, author of Senate Bill 250, which would remove the ability of all California schools to give children a different meal or to shame them based on the debt their parents owe. SB 250 is currently in the California Assembly Suspense File and a decision about whether or not it will be heard on the floor will be made tomorrow, September 1, 2017.

Anti-hunger leaders from around the state and country echo Senator Hertzberg’s enthusiasm for the new rule. Here is what they are saying:

“As the largest school district in state, LAUSD is marching forward against child hunger. Shaming a student or denying a child a school meal when a parent is unable to pay is never the answer. We as a community, state, and nation must do better and commit ourselves to ensuring no child goes hungry,” said Shimica Gaskins, executive director of Children’s Defense Fund-California.

“I commend LAUSD on implementing a strong policy that ensures all its students have the healthy school lunches they need to achieve academically and supports a positive experience in all school cafeterias for all students,” said Jim Weill, Food Research and Action Center.

“As a former LAUSD student and the lead researcher for this project, it brings me great joy that the district has decided to protect the 600,000 plus students LAUSD currently serves from being hungry during the school day,” said Yesenia Jimenez, whose research uncovered LAUSD’s prior half-a-cheese sandwich policy just removed by LAUSD and other similar policies in school districts across the state.

“This is the end of a practice of denying food to kids that was causing outrage in the community. Ending lunch shaming is the right decision made by LAUSD and we hope it will serve as a model for other school districts in the greater LA Region and beyond,” said Frank Tamborello, a long-time anti-hunger organizer and leader at Hunger Action Los Angeles.

“In 2014, MAZON launched the nation’s first successful state ban of “lunch shaming” in Minnesota, which was followed by similar legislation in New Mexico earlier this year.  We are hopeful that California will follow suit in passing SB 250. But this month’s decision by LAUSD to take immediate action and to ensure that no child is ever deny a breakfast or lunch represents an important step forward and validates what we all believe – that every child deserves the chance to learn and succeed regardless of their economic background and status.” said Samuel Chu, National Organizer.

Read the report