SACRAMENTO – The Senate today passed legislation by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, to stop schools from publicly shaming or embarrassing students by either denying them lunch or providing a snack instead because their parents haven’t paid lunch fees.
SB 250 ensures that school officials do not delay or deny food to hungry students as punishment for unpaid school meal fees, and it directs schools to establish a process for notifying their families about unpaid fees and collecting them.
The Senate passed the bill on a bipartisan 39-0 vote, and it goes next to the Assembly for consideration.
“California kids need healthy meals so they can succeed at school,” Hertzberg said. “We must stop school lunch shaming, make sure school kids get the food they need and create a different approach for tackling lunch fee debt.”
Students have a harder time focusing and learning when they are hungry, and 23 percent of California children come from families living below the federal poverty line. According to a national survey conducted in 2015 by the anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength, 75 percent of teachers say their students come to school hungry and 59 percent say “a lot or most” of their students depend on school meals as a primary source of nutrition.
In recent years, the practice of school lunch shaming has come to light. In some school cafeterias, students who haven’t paid lunch fees are directed out of lunch lines and instead given bread and cheese, or their lunches are simply dumped into the garbage while peers look on.
SB 250 forbids this practice and requires schools to make meals available to needy kids, even if their fees have not been paid. The bill directs schools to exhaust all options in finding a way to certify students for free or reduced-price meals or reimburse them for the fees.
In addition, schools must notify guardians when unpaid lunch fees exceed the amount for five full-priced lunches.
The legislation is co-sponsored by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations, Children’s Defense Fund-California, Food Research and Action Center, MAZON and SEIU California. It is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, California; California Association of Food Banks; California State PTA; California Teachers Association; California School Nurses Organization; and many other organizations.
“National School Lunch Program is an essential program, preventing hunger and securing opportunity one lunch tray at a time,” said Jessica Bartholow, of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “California’s school nutrition professionals are some of the best in the country. This bill will help clarify rules for them, families and for kids when school lunches go unpaid and remove opportunities for school children to be shamed or go hungry in the school environment.”