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School lunch debt policies hard to swallow

After years of battles over the nutritional value of school lunches, there’s a new policy fight cooking in the nation’s school cafeterias.

Anti-poverty advocates and lawmakers in more than half a dozen states and Congress are pushing legislation aimed at stopping a practice known as “lunch-shaming,” where school officials embarrass or stigmatize students who haven’t paid their lunch bills. In some cases, administrators stamp students’ arms with lunch money reminders, give them alternative lunches or even withhold meals.

New Mexico recently passed a law aimed at stopping the practice, and a handful of other states — New York, California, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas — are now considering legislation.

“I thought we were just solving a problem here in New Mexico but, as it turns out, this is a problem all over the country,” said state Sen. Michael Padilla of New Mexico, a Democrat, who has sponsored what he calls the first “anti-lunch shaming” law in the country. “Each state needs to address this on their own. It shouldn’t take the federal government to change this practice.”

There’s no federal requirement on how schools must handle students who owe lunch money. But the Obama administration’s Agriculture Department last year said school districts must have a policy on how they handle such situations and communicate those policies to parents.

School districts have until July 1 to comply with that directive. A USDA spokesperson confirmed to POLITICO in an email that the Trump administration plans to keep that deadline. “We have received no indication that the current Administration intends to alter this existing policy,” the spokesperson wrote.

Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the groups that co-sponsored the California bill, said they have been pushing the USDA to address the issue of national lunch debt policy for years and that the deadline is not enough.

“The policy that [USDA] did come up with is not as strong as we would have liked and we said that a couple of times,” Bartholow said. “We would have liked for them to actually say that you can’t take action against a child for the debt of their parents and for them to spell out the things that schools are not allowed to do, but instead they just passed the buck and are now just requiring school districts to set their own policies and those policies can continue to be just as cruel as they are today.”

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