AUGUSTA — During a senior class assembly last year at one Maine high school, a principal called forward mortified students to warn them in front of their classmates that they would not be able to graduate if their school lunch debts weren’t paid.

Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, told lawmakers that one of those students, a girl in her district, was singled out to her “shame and embarrassment” because she owed $2.10.

Other officials said they’ve heard of students denied lunch because they had debts that had gone unpaid, sometimes without any notice to parents.

Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, introduced legislation that would outlaw “food shaming.” The measure doesn’t make clear who would wind up covering the tab for unpaid meals.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, is among those endorsing Maker’s bill.

“I wish we didn’t need to legislate feeding hungry children,” she told legislators. “But if even one child in our community is denied food, or humiliated because of a parent’s negligence, we need to do something.”

Maker told the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee that feeding students alternative meals such as a peanut butter sandwich “is a form of stigmatizing the student” that has the potential to cause “embarrassment and humiliation.”

“I feel passionately that no student should be turned away from a hot meal or singled out for their inability to pay,” Maker said.

While it is likely rare that students are made to go hungry in Maine, a 2014 federal study on the Nutrition Assistance Program found that nearly half the schools in America punish students who can’t pay for meals.

Most of them provide “an alternate or courtesy meal” – something less than the hot lunch most students receive – but 3 percent of schools “did not serve a meal to students who were unable to pay.” Another 6 percent only give food to elementary school children who can’t pay.

Susan Andrews, co-founder of the Maine Resilience Building Network, said many Maine children are anxious about getting enough to eat. She said the concern among educators is reaching “crisis levels.”

“Food insecurity is a form of trauma, just as is the shame and stigma that children feel when they are punished in front of their peers and others by being denied food,” she said.

Andrews warned that “a hungry child can’t learn.”

Walter Beesley, child nutrition director for the state Department of Education, said the food shaming problem “is not just a Maine issue” and is receiving attention nationally. In Maine, he said, every school “has students who owe money at various levels and all for different reasons.”

To cope, some schools “offer an alternate meal to students owing money” while others have different policies, some with unintended consequences because “parents know that if they do not pay, their child will get a meal anyway,” Beesley said.

“This means that districts could have unpaid accounts creating liabilities into the thousands of dollars,” he said.

Beesley said the Education Department agrees that the debts are “not the responsibility of the student” and that schools should talk to parents or guardians about them.

The executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association, Eileen King, said her group agrees that students shouldn’t be punished when a parent fails to pay meal bills.

She asked, though, “What avenues do we have open to us to get a parent to pay bills legitimately owed?”

King said some parents can afford to pay but ignore overdue lunch bills. She said food is “a very real cost in the budget” that someone has to pay for.

“We are open to ideas,” King said, “but believe it is not fair to allow a group of parents who can pay to make others pick up the tab.”

Maker said legislators can discuss “who should be shouldering the responsibility of a child not having money for a meal, but at the end of the day it is the student who is suffering or feeling shame for not being able to afford the same meal” given to classmates.

Steve Collins can be contacted at:

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