Personal stories not enough to salvage 'lunch shaming' bill

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BOSTON — From a $5 outstanding balance that put a high schooler at risk of not graduating to hot lunches swapped for cheese sandwiches, lawmakers and others Tuesday detailed "lunch shaming" incidents to push for a bill that would impose new requirements around school meal debt.

Despite testimony that the House chair of the Education Committee said raised "very serious questions," the clock ran out on the issue and the committee voted to include the lunch debt bill in a study order, typically a legislative dead-end.

"We're going to keep on fighting for it, and if we don't get it done this session, we'll certainly fight for it next session," Rep. Andy Vargas, the bill's House sponsor, told the News Service.

Vargas and Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem filed bills (H 4422, S 2390) in March that would ban school districts from serving an "alternative meal" when payment has not been received; ban required disposal of already-served meals because a student cannot pay or owes money; and ban districts from prohibiting students from participating in extracurricular activities or school events because of lunch debt. The bills also call on school districts to "take steps to maximize federal revenues and minimize debt on families," like offering families assistance in applying for free or reduced-price lunches. The goal, Creem said, is to prevent students from facing stigma or embarrassment because they cannot afford a meal or their parents have not yet paid a bill.

"There is no doubt that schools must find a balance between feeding hungry students and maintaining the financial viability of their meals program but no school, no school, should punish a child for not having lunch money," she said.

Somerville Rep. Denise Provost said she was visiting a family in her district recently and overheard a warning on the answering machine that a student who lived in the house would not be able to graduate high school if she did not pay her lunch debt, a bill that totaled $5.

"While at least the communication was private, I thought the threat was a bit draconian and evidence that there was a problem here," Provost told the committee.

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