It seems every few weeks we learn about a new instance of school “lunch shaming” the practice of penalizing students whose families owe lunch money by denying them basic services, a hot lunch, or otherwise publicly embarrassing them. In Warwick, Rhode Island, students were told they would get sunflower butter and jelly sandwiches until their parents paid up. A district in Pennsylvania threatened to put delinquent students in foster care. And a 9-year-old in Ohio got his lunchtime breadsticks taken away on his birthday.
The stories aren’t pleasant, pitting local school districts with tight budget margins against families who often have few options to pay the debt. We covered the some of those families’ stories in an in-depth feature this April.
What passes for a happy ending is increasingly a benefactor who pays off a slew of debt in a particular district, a temporary solution at best. But one of those donors recently caught the eye of California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who signed statewide legislation banning lunch shaming this weekend.
“[Nine-year-old Ryan Kyote] showed how at many schools across the country, students whose parents are not able to pay for their lunch are given a cheaper, ‘alternative’ lunch that causes them to stick out from their peers,” Newsom said in a written statement on his website.
Kyote, a third-grader in Napa Valley, California, saved up his allowance to pay off $74.80 in debt accrued by his classmates. He had an opportunity to meet Newsom earlier in the year, and made a case for why shaming is such a harmful practice.
Signed on Saturday, California’s new legislation will go into effect immediately. Calling it an “urgency statute,” the new act states this action is “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety.”
Beleaguered school districts note that the issue is not cut-and-dried, as unpaid lunch debts can put their own budgets underwater. As Pennsylvania school superintendent Rose Minniti, whose small district was sitting on more than $11,000 in unpaid lunch debt, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last month: “When you’re working with kids, you care about them. You want them to have the best experience possible. On the other hand, you have $11,000 that has to be paid.”
The legislation varies from state to state. California’s new law prohibits either denying food to a student in debt, or providing an “alternative meal” (eg, cold jelly sandwiches.) It also mandates better communications between school districts and families, to ensure parents are aware of their delinquent status before things get too dire.
This issue is also receiving attention on a national level: Democratic legislators Representative Ilhan Omar and Senator Tina Smith, both of Minnesota, introduced the No Shame At School Act in June. The bill is still being deliberated in committee. Democratic presidential candidates including Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro, and Kamala Harris have also homed in on the debate.