Maine schools would not be permitted to deny a meal to any student – even if that student doesn’t have lunch money – under a bill endorsed 8-3 Thursday by lawmakers on the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

“This is a win,” said Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who co-sponsored L.D. 1684. “If a child is not fed, they cannot learn.”

The bill is aimed at ending so-called “food shaming,” when a student is given an alternate meal or denied food if their lunch money account dips below a certain amount. The committee heard anecdotal evidence that this is happening in Maine, but had no data.

All school districts have a charging policy, but they vary widely in spelling out how much an account can be overdrawn before a student can no longer charge a meal, according to Walter Beesley, the child nutrition director for the state education department.

Currently, there is more than $350,000 in overdrawn student lunch accounts statewide, said Beesley, who did an informal survey of Maine food service directors this week.

Bill sponsor Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, said her bill is intended to bar schools from serving students an alternate meal if they don’t have money for a hot lunch.

“Being served something different from the other students is a form of stigmatizing the student, I believe, potentially causing embarrassment and humiliation,” she said.

Anecdotal evidence presented during the public hearing, and a survey of several districts’ policies online, indicated that there generally are no limits on elementary school students. But some districts only allow middle and high school students to charge up to $10 or $20 before they are cut off from getting a meal, or are given an alternative to the hot lunch, such as milk, fruit and a bagel.

Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, supported the bill, but said she wished they had solid numbers on how often students were actually being denied food.

“I would like to know, is this happening often? Or in just a few schools? Is this happening because of a few mean lunch ladies?” Kornfield said.

Other states are taking up the issue, fueled by reports of school officials dumping food out if a student doesn’t have lunch money and replacing it with alternative meals, or stamping a child’s hand to mark them as having overdue accounts.

Last year, New Mexico became the first state to pass a law banning food shaming, with Texas and California passing similar bills soon after.

On Thursday, committee members struggled to agree on the final language, meeting in caucus three times, trying to untangle the “food shaming” issue from addressing how to handle collecting overdue money.

The final version of Maker’s bill forbids school personnel from telling students about any shortfall in lunch money accounts, and requires the school’s food service office to communicate directly with parents. It also includes language asking state education officials to draft a model charging policy and a model collection policy for districts to take to their school boards.

“It is unacceptable to put a spotlight on a child because their parents have not been paying a bill, for any reason,” said Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth. “It is not OK.”

The bill is not aimed at students who get free and reduced meals. Under the federal National School Lunch Program, students eat for free if a family of four earns less than about $32,000 a year or at a reduced price if earning less than $45,000.

Members debated whether older students could be told about insufficient funds in a lunch account, whether a change would make parents less likely to pay off a debt, and whether a change could influence some families to not sign up for free and reduced lunch.

A drop in free and reduced numbers, Beesley warned, could have a ripple effect for a district, triggering a drop in grants or other school funding that is based on the percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, said parents with overdrawn accounts had a “lackadaisical attitude about paying for lunches,” and that while she was against shaming students, she didn’t think telling students about a lunch debt was “shaming.”

“We are coddling our kids so much,” said Sampson, who voted against the bill. “What are they going to do when life really starts throwing things at them …. (so) one day they were embarrassed. It’s a little bit of a hysterical reaction.”

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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