AUGUSTA — Maine schools would not be permitted to deny a meal to any student – even if that student doesn’t have lunch money or owes the school money – under a “food shaming” bill reintroduced in the Legislature.

“Should (districts) balance the lunch ledger by humiliating students?” asked Rep. Janice Dodge, D-Belfast, the bill’s sponsor, at a news conference before a public hearing Wednesday before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

When a student doesn’t have enough money in their lunch accounts, some districts withhold hot meals, post lists of delinquent accounts, stamp hands or offer the child “lesser” meals, like a bagel and an apple, Dodge said.

Her bill would specifically prevent a school from punishing or refusing a meal as a form of disciplinary action, or openly identifying or stigmatizing a student who cannot pay or owes money. It also would require a school to communicate about debt directly with a parent or guardian, not the child.

A co-sponsor, Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, said she has heard from several constituents about the tactics, including “a particularly troubling story” from a woman who said a cafeteria worker took a tray away from her grandchild and dumped out the food into a trash can in front of all the students.

Another woman said her graduating senior was in an assembly when the principal read a list of all students who owed lunch money, saying those students couldn’t graduate if the debts weren’t paid. She owed $2.10.

“Children need to be fed to learn,” Bellows said. “I can’t even imagine how terrible I would feel if a trusted figure – whether my principal or a lunch lady – did something like these examples to me.”

The Maine School Nutrition Association is opposing the bill, although the president-elect said it supports the idea behind it. The association, representing food service directors, argued that if the bill passes people won’t pay their children’s bills because they know the school will feed them anyway.

“I would love to support this bill wholeheartedly. Unfortunately I am answerable to our school boards,” said David Roberts, who is also the food service director in Maine School Administrative District 52 in Turner.

He said other states that have adopted anti-food shaming bills have reported “skyrocketing” debt from unpaid debts. Reading from a Colorado newspaper article, Roberts said the Denver school system’s unpaid lunch debt rose from $13,000 before changing the policy to $356,000 the next year.

Dodge and Bellows said they did not know how much unpaid debt Maine districts face now, but in January 2018 when a similar bill was before the committee, the state’s child nutrition director said there was more than $350,000 in overdrawn school lunch accounts statewide.

The 2018 bill passed the committee and the full House but never received a final vote.

The committee will next take up the bill in a work session.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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