California school districts will no longer be able to deny students food or give them smaller meals of fruit and milk if they have unpaid lunch fees, thanks to a new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Senate Bill 250, authored by Sen. Robert M. Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), officially ends this process of “meal shaming,” or punishing students in an effort to get parents to pay for their meals and settle their debts with school districts.
“We must stop school lunch shaming and create a different approach for tackling lunch fee debt,” Hertzberg said in a statement. “We want to make sure that kids, no matter how poor their families may be, get a nutritious lunch and the energy they need to succeed in school.”
Also known as the Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act, the bill requires schools that provide meals through the National School Lunch Program or the School Breakfast Program to ensure that students are not shamed, treated differently or served different meals if they have unpaid school meal fees.
It also requires schools to notify parents or guardians of the negative balance on their meal account no later than 10 days after the negative balance appears and requires districts to publish their policies to collect debts from parents who have not paid their meal fees.
If it is later determined that a student is eligible for free or reduced-price meals, then the school district will be reimbursed for the cost of those meals through a state-mandated local program, according to SB 250.
Supporters of the bill argued that the bill will help remove barriers for children who are below the poverty line and who go hungry in schools.
“Our research found that policies which shame children with unpaid school lunch debt are more common in California than we could have ever imagined,” said Jessica Bartholow, of the Western Center on Law and Poverty which supported the bill, in a statement. “We commend districts that have taken action to end these policies voluntarily, and we thank Governor Brown for signing SB 250 to ban these practices throughout the state.”
In the Santa Clarita Valley, four of the area’s five school districts—Castaic, Newhall, Saugus and Sulphur Springs—receive meal services from the Santa Clarita Valley School Food Services Agency (SCVSFSA).
“We don’t turn anyone away or take any meals away,” Lynnelle Grumbles, Chief Executive Officer of SCVSFSA, told The Signal in August. “It certainly is our position that we want every child to eat every day and we feel that the meals we provide helps them learn in the classroom.”
SCVSFSA’s policy, however, does offer reduced meals after a student has received three full, unpaid meals. Then students are told to eat from the salad bar and receive a carton of milk.
“On the fourth meal they can eat from our salad bar,” Grumbles said. “They don’t get a full meal but they can take as much as they want off the salad bar and they get a carton of milk.”
When this occurs, SCVSFSA employees and volunteers encourage the students to call home and allow parents to make automatic payments online. They also offer to assist parents or guardians with completing an application for free or reduced-price meals if they need it.
The agency did not take a position on SB 250 before it passed through the legislature and signed by Brown.