House Bill 3454, which the Oregon House approved Thursday, is one of those pieces of legislation that’s easy to love and hate at the same time: love because in a political climate where the poor and disenfranchised have a limited voice, HB 3454 defends such people. Hate because it shouldn’t take a state law for school personnel to treat students with basic human respect.
HB 3454 bans in schools what’s become known as “lunch shaming” — publicly identifying and stigmatizing students whose accounts are out of balance.
If this phrase and concept are new to you, you’re not alone. But in our changing universe, it’s come to this: a law to ensure some fourth-grader isn’t humiliated by a cashier — “You’re out of money” — or sent to the back of the line. In worst-case scenarios, some children are forced to work off their debt; in best cases, they’re given meals that, unlike ones being eaten by their peers, don’t meet federal nutritional requirements.
For heaven’s sake, it’s 2017. Haven’t we come further than this? Apparently not. Thus is the U.S. Department of Agriculture requiring districts to adopt policies this month to address meal debts — and to do so with increased sensitivity to the children who often pay the price, in humiliation, for what’s clearly an adult responsibility.
The department’s National School Lunch Program funds free and reduced-price meals for the nation’s poorest children, which shields them from such scorn. It’s students on the next level who bear the brunt of humiliation.
According to PBS NewsHour, a 2014 federal report showed 39 percent of districts nationwide hand out cheap alternative meals to such kids that don’t meet the feds’ nutritional requirements. Six percent won’t feed students at all who come up short on money.
Armed with such data, the Agriculture Department is requiring districts to adopt policies this month for addressing meal debts with a decided emphasis on keeping kids well-fed and treated fairly.
But some states are a step ahead. Spurred by an advocacy group on poverty, New Mexico passed an anti-meal-shaming law in April. Now, Oregon has joined a handful of states to install a law that shouldn’t be necessary but is.
“HB 3454 will help ensure that all students have access to lunch while at school without having to worry about being publicly embarrassed because a parent or guardian failed to pay their bill,” said House Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte. “The last thing we want our children worrying about when they’re in a learning environment is where their next meal is going to come from.”
The law will prohibit schools from forcing students to do chores or other work to pay for meals — and make it illegal to single them out or stigmatize them in any way. Schools must deal with parents and guardians, not students, if accounts are out of balance.
It’s unfortunate such laws are necessary. And we’re not naive; unless history stopped repeating, some students of all economics classes will skip lunch, or mooch, and spend their lunch money elsewhere.
But most students, particularly those living on the ragged edge, have enough challenges to stay afloat in school as it is. Being branded with a scarlet letter for nonpayment of a lunch debt does nothing to help their cause — or, for that matter, education’s.
— The Eugene Register-Guard,