The Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act establishes a process to tackle school lunch debts without publicly embarrassing kids
Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, announced on Thursday that Gov. Jerry Brown has signed his legislation to stop schools from publicly shaming or embarrassing students by either denying them lunch or providing a snack instead because their parents haven’t paid lunch fees.
SB 250 ensures that school officials do not delay or deny food to hungry students as punishment for unpaid school meal fees, and it directs schools to establish a process for notifying their families about unpaid fees and collecting them.
The legislation, which drew national media attention, won overwhelming bipartisan support. The Assembly approved SB 250 on a 77-0 vote, and the Senate approved it 40-0.
“When President Truman established the National School Lunch Program, it was based on a fundamental principle that we will feed our kids in school because it helps them learn and respects their human dignity. This isn’t partisan,” Hertzberg said. “When you’re treated differently as a child in school, it’s shameful. And in this case, the child is being harmed as a tool to collect their parent’s debt. That makes no senses whatsoever.”
Students have a harder time focusing and learning when they are hungry, and 23 percent of California children come from families living below the federal poverty line. According to a national survey conducted in 2015 by the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, 75 percent of teachers say their students come to school hungry and 59 percent say “a lot or most” of their students depend on school meals as a primary source of nutrition.
In recent years, the practice of school lunch shaming has come to light. In some school cafeterias, students who haven’t paid lunch fees are directed out of lunch lines and instead given bread and cheese, or their lunches are simply dumped into the garbage while peers look on.
SB 250 forbids this practice and requires schools to make meals available to needy kids, even if their fees have not been paid. Instead, schools must recognize that meal costs are the obligation of the parents, not the children. For families that cannot afford the meal fees, the bill directs schools to find a way to certify students for free or reduced-price meals or to reimburse them for the fees.
In addition, schools must notify guardians when unpaid lunch fees exceed the amount for 10 full-priced lunches.
The legislation was co-sponsored by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations, Children’s Defense Fund-California, Food Research and Action Center, MAZON and SEIU California. It was supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, California; California Association of Food Banks; California State PTA; California Teachers Association; California School Nurses Organization; and many other organizations.
“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. “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.”