Washington – Students who can't afford school lunches could not be identified or singled out, and the federal government would reimburse schools for families that fall behind in lunch payments, under legislation introduced by Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen. Tina Smith.
"Students ... are being singled out and humiliated at lunchtime," Omar said Wednesday at a Capitol Hill news conference. She was joined by Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop. Valerie Castile recalled how her son often paid for students' lunches out of his own pocket if they didn't have enough money.
"We're one of the richest countries on the planet, and I don't think any child should be hungry. No child should be deprived of a nutritious meal," Castile said. In May, she gave Cooper High School in New Hope an $8,000 check from the Philando Castile Relief Foundation to clear the lunch debts of the school's graduating seniors.
Criticism of what's often called "lunch shaming" has grown in recent years following a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that found that almost half of school districts nationwide employed the tactic in some form. That has included downgrading meals or denying them entirely, throwing away lunches of students whose families have unpaid lunch bills, or forcing students to be identified with stamps, bracelets or tokens.
Minnesota and 15 other states now have laws on the books that prohibit schools from engaging in demeaning practices related to students' lunch debts, but advocates say such practices persist.
Under the legislation, schools would be prohibited from requiring students with outstanding lunch debts to be identified in any public fashion. Schools could not publish lists of children with outstanding debts or use debt collectors to obtain meal fees. And schools with students who have unpaid meal fees would be eligible to receive retroactive reimbursement from the federal government.
The bill has not started to move through the House committee process, so it's unclear how much it would cost. But Omar, a Minneapolis Democrat, said she's discussed the legislation with Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor. She said he wants to get behind the effort.
The legislation faces uncertain prospects in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Smith, a Democrat, said she's confident of building Republican support.
"I start from the view that child nutrition is not a Democratic or a Republican issue," Smith said. A member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Smith said she intends to try to include the provision later this year when the panel takes on a scheduled update of federal child-nutrition programs.
There is existing federal funding for free and reduced-price lunches for families below certain income levels, but advocates say many families are unaware of the program or don't know they would qualify.
Even as public attention has grown, problems persist: Earlier this year, a cafeteria worker in Canaan, N.H., said she was fired after a manager noticed her giving a student lunch even though he couldn't pay for it. The company that ran the cafeteria denied that account.
"We must end this once and for all through federal action," said Josh Protas, vice president for public policy at Mazon, a national anti-hunger advocacy group.
Omar, who worked in nutrition education before she went into politics, said in an interview after the news conference that she has plans for much broader legislation related to meals in schools.
"We're looking at a universal school meals program that we hope to introduce right before school opens, late this summer. Sort of modeled after New York City's universal school meals program," she said.
New York City began offering a free lunch to all public school students in the 2017-18 school year, joining other major cities including Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas.