Illinois bill aims to end lunch shaming and provide student meals

Illinois bill aims to end lunch shaming and provide student meals

(Ill.) In an effort to ensure children are well-fed and ready to learn, a bill awaiting the governor’s signature requires that schools in Illinois serve all students school lunches, regardless of their ability to pay.

Known as the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, the legislation also prohibits publicly identifying or stigmatizing students who cannot pay for meals or snacks–known as “lunch shaming.”

Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has until Aug. 27 to act on the bill, or it becomes law without his signature.

The bill’s lead author, Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, told local reporters that his bill would ensure students who need lunch would be served a meal, and that any questions the school had about payment could be directed toward the child’s parents or guardians later.

“Forcing students to go without lunch is punishing them for the mistakes of their parents,” Stadelman told ChronicleIllinois.com. “As a state, we can’t force students to sit through class hungry and expect them to learn. This plan ensures all students will be given an opportunity to succeed instead of being forced to learn on an empty stomach.”

Stories of debt-ridden students being required to wear a wrist band or get a stamp on their hand or arm reading “I Need Lunch Money” prompted lawmakers across the country to examine the issue of lunch shaming–especially in schools where children were forced to do custodial chores in order to earn a school lunch, or even have their hot meal thrown in the trash after having already been served.

Last year, New Mexico became the first state to direct schools to serve children hot school lunches and work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance. That bill also puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children. California passed nearly identical legislation a few months later.

Massachusetts lawmakers, meanwhile, have apparently shelved a bill this year that would have prevented lunch shaming of students who have not been able to pay for their meals. Supporters of the bill said it was meant to urge districts and parents to work out the lunch funds owed without punishing, or even involving, the student.

Some opponents argue that if such a plan is adopted, students who do have the ability to pay for their meals simply wouldn’t have to because they would receive a meal anyway.

Others, including district officials, have argued that providing school meals for free without reimbursement would further financially burden schools already struggling to make ends meet.

In Illinois, more than 1.3 million people are struggling with hunger–nearly 460,000 of whom are children, according to a 2016 study from Feeding America. The same report found that one in every six children in the state struggles with hunger.

Under Statelman’s bill, schools are still able to make contact with families that owe for student meals, once a debt threshold is met. Schools can also request that parents or guardians apply for meal benefits in a federal or State child nutrition program.

If the amount owed by a student for meals or snacks reaches $500 and the school district has made reasonable efforts to collect the debt from the student's family for at least one year, the district can request the Illinois comptroller withhold tax refunds of parents to pay off the debt.

Additionally, the bill moves that schools cannot publicly identify or stigmatize a student who cannot pay for a meal or snack or who owes money for a meal or snack.

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