Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act could end harmful practices for collecting school unpaid meal debt

No child should ever go hungry. And no child should ever be shamed for not having the money they need to pay for a meal.

Back in 2019, Appleseed studied the issue of unpaid meal debt in Nebraska schools. As part of a study conducted with Senator Walz, we found that unpaid meal debt is a serious issue for Nebraska nutrition programs, just like in the rest of the US, with 77 responding districts carrying nearly $600K in debt.

Debt like this can make school nutrition programs unsustainable, but even more troubling were district policies to collect debt. Policies ranged from refusing meals to students if they carried over $10 in debt, to offering an alternative meal, to stamping kids’ hands to inform parents that they need to send lunch money. Some district policies even stated that the district would report families to Child Protective Services if debt went unpaid. Dealing with debt in ways that punish students for something they have no control over leaves them hungry and humiliated in the process or “school lunch shaming”; something all school nutrition programs should work to avoid.

In July, the Congressional House Education and Labor Committee introduced the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act (HR 8450), a piece of legislation that will address childhood food insecurity by expanding access to free meals for all students and create common sense safeguards against school lunch shaming. This legislation will not only reduce childhood hunger, it will also help address the problem of kids not having enough money for food at school.

Specifically this bill:

  • Prohibits schools from publicly identifying and shaming students with stickers, stamps, bracelets, or other means when they have school meal debt.
  • Requires schools contact parents or caregivers directly about debt, rather than the student.
  • Prohibits schools from throwing away a student’s food once it has been served.
  • Requires schools to attempt to directly certify with unpaid meal debt, rather than letting them continue to accumulate debt.

Congress may vote on the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act soon. In the meantime, we urge you to contact your Senators and Representative to tell them you support keeping kids fed and reducing unpaid meal debt and lunch shaming.

Contact your Senators/Representative now

As for change in Nebraska, our work is not done. Even without legislation, districts should consider ways to end any school meal debt collection practices that shame and punish students.

Taking steps to target collection activities and encouraging parents and caregivers to sign up for free and reduced price meals will ensure that information gets to who needs it – and is much more effective than excluding or singling out students with debt.

We encourage interested community members to contact your school administrators to learn more about unpaid meal debt policies and practices in your district.

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