Baker signs bill prohibiting ‘meal-shaming’ in schools
New law requires more districts to offer free lunch
THE PRACTICE of “meal-shaming,” drawing attention to a student whose family owes money for school meals, is a thing of the past, after Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law prohibiting the practice in Massachusetts.
“Now we can finally say when Massachusetts students go to the school cafeteria for lunch, they do not have to worry about being penalized for their family’s poverty,” said Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem, a Newton Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors.
The new law was the result of three years of advocacy by hunger prevention groups and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, which published a report in 2018 chronicling the disparate practices districts have for addressing meal debt. In some cases, cafeteria workers were instructed to throw away a hot meal and exchange it for a cold cheese sandwich. In others, students were prohibited from participating in sports, field trips, or graduation due to meal debt.
In 2019, the Legislature required districts to create and publicize their plans for handling meal debt. This year’s bill, which Baker signed October14 and held a ceremonial signing for on Monday in the State House library, goes further by prohibiting schools from taking any action that would publicly identify a student whose family owes a meal debt, including providing them with an alternative meal that is not available to every student. Schools can no longer deny students the ability to participate in activities or receive their transcripts or grades due to meal debt.
A second part of the bill will provide free lunches to more students by requiring more schools to participate in a federal reimbursement program.
This year, under pandemic-related emergency laws, all schools can provide free meals to all students and be reimbursed by the federal government. But under normal circumstances, there are two ways students can get free meals. Low-income families can always apply for free or reduced priced meals in school. But communities with a high percentage of low-income families can also apply for the “community eligibility provision,” in which the school can offer free lunches to all students without processing individual applications, and the federal government will reimburse a percentage of the cost based on the number of low-income students in the district.
The new law will require all districts where more than 50 percent of students are low-income to enroll in the community eligibility provision and provide free meals to all students, unless the school applies for a waiver and proves that it would cause the school financial hardship.
According to a database maintained by the Food Research and Action Center, only 33 schools in Massachusetts currently have more than 50 percent student eligibility and are not enrolled in the community eligibility provision. A number are small charter schools.According to the database, three Gloucester public schools are on the list. School Committee Chair Jonathan Pope said recently that he is not familiar with the bill, but added: “I’m sure we would be interested in doing it.”
At the bill signing, Baker said food and nutrition for students became “top of mind” when schools shut down during the pandemic. One question that came up was whether the state was making full use of all the federal resources available to support kids in school. “The answer was not quite,” Baker said.