school lunch

Lawmakers Look To End Lunch Debt Shaming in CT

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Soon it may be illegal for Connecticut school districts to put the burden of unpaid lunch bills on students.

The practice of school lunch debt shaming has been criticized for punishing the student instead of the parent.

While there are rules school districts must follow to keep free and reduced lunch status confidential, some say there are other ways students may be paying the price for their parents’ delinquencies.

From taking away field trips or banning participation in extracurricular activities, the penalties very from district to district.

“The child who shows up just to learn shouldn’t really get involved in that.  If a child shows up and is entitled to a lunch you give them the full lunch, you don’t pull back the hot lunch and give them a cheese sandwich.  If there’s an issue you take that up with the parent,” explained Sen. Kevin Kelly, a Republican from Stratford.

“The last thing that adults in this state should be engaged in is anything that might shame a family or a child that is already facing the very very difficult situation of poverty,” added Steven Hernandez, the executive director for the Commission on Women, Children, and Seniors.

Tuesday, lawmakers discussed a bill that would direct school districts to communicate directly with the parent, and only the parent, in cases where the lunch bill is delinquent.

“If you don’t pay your bill you don’t pay your bill.  Why should a child have to pay for that?” said Rep. Liz Linehand, a Democrat from Cheshire.

Districts would also be required to give those families information on SNAP benefits and local food pantries. 

Both Republicans and Democrats have found common ground on the shamming issue and support the idea of making sure children aren’t punished for their parents’ inability to pay.  But, there’s a question of whether districts will bear a financial burden under this bill.

“The big issue here is we don’t want to put any more unfunded mandates on our local municipalities so if there’s a will to do this then we should also find the will to find the money in the budget,” Kelly said.

“I don’t think that we have the ability right now to fund that.  When we get our financial house in order it’s something I absolutely think we should look at,” said Linehan.

The School Nutrition Association of Connecticut supports the bill but also urged lawmakers to make sure districts have adequate funding.

“If parents do not have to pay for their meals or know that they’re not going to have to pay for their meals it could make the problem worse in some cases,” said Jeff Sidewater of the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut.

The bill would also allow third parties to pay for outstanding lunch debts, something that is currently prohibited.

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