By Senator Lena C. Taylor
Looking back on childhood memories of school, there were likely good and bad days. Today, there are youth who will reminisce on their K-12 experience and recall what we refer to today as “lunch shaming.” This is the practice of providing disparate treatment to a student because of their family’s inability or problems paying for their school meals.
Over the years, national news stories have highlighted children being denied a meal because of an outstanding lunch bill. School officials have thrown the child’s meal away or given them a cheese/PB&J sandwich, as opposed to the same meal that their classmates were provided.
Incidents of students being physically pulled out of lunch lines or having their hands stamped with the words “I owe lunch money” have also been reported. In addition, school districts have denied graduating seniors their caps and gowns unless their meal debts were paid.
As if school today isn’t already hard enough for some students to navigate, these misguided policies only make matters worse. The added embarrassment and pressure of something that is beyond a child’s control further contributes to the many issues already associated with food insecurities.
Let me start by saying, this is an adult problem and children have no business being a “go-between debt collector or negotiator” in this process. States have said they can no longer allow school meal programs to operate in the red. Funding is scarce and there has been a push to get parents to comply with their portion of school meal expenses. But somewhere, that push took an ugly turn. As a state, we can and should do something about this!
That is why I am pleased to have worked with Rep. Gary Tauchen (R – Bonduel) on Assembly Bill 84 (AB 84), regarding imposing requirements related to school lunch and breakfast programs in certain schools. AB 84 would require certain schools to provide a lunch or breakfast, regardless of any outstanding financial obligation, to students who request such meals.
AB 84 would also require that schools clearly explain the application process to families regarding the eligibility for free or reduced school meals. Under this bill, children would not be punished or allowed to go hungry, while the adults (parents and school administrators) work out a solution. Sometimes, even possible solutions have violated policy, like accepting a donation to the district to cover outstanding lunch bills. With AB 84, we change that practice.
In Milwaukee Public Schools, we figured this out a few years ago. It is time to take steps around the rest of the state to ensure that all of our children and youth are on equal footing when it comes to school nutrition and access to quality meals.
Most of us are familiar with studies and data that reports many families rely on meals provided at school. In fact, in Wisconsin roughly 82 million school lunches and 26 million breakfasts are served annually.
It is my hope that we will join at least 16 other states, such as New Mexico, Washington, California, New York in passing this measure to treat all of our youth the same during school meals.