AUGUSTA — A bill forbidding schools from shaming students who can’t pay for lunch or owe the school lunch money won unanimous bipartisan support from the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

“Punishing a child for not paying for a meal, to me, is just horrible,” said Rep. Shelley Rudnicki, R-Fairfield. “I am appalled that schools would actually do this.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Janice Dodge, D-Belfast, 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.

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.

Opponents warned that the bill would lead to an increase in people not paying their bills, citing a sharp increase in school lunch debt in other states that adopted similar legislation. But committee chairwoman Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said that argument didn’t resonate with her.

“This bill is simply saying children are not going to be used as a mechanism to collect funds for school meals,” she said. She said she had to deal with unpaid lunch debt when she was a school board member in Cape Elizabeth.


Some families, she said, weren’t paying because they were struggling and too proud to sign up for free and reduced lunches, while others had the ability to pay but didn’t. She said the board decided to absorb the debt from families in crisis, but authorized the district to hire a debt collector for families with the ability to pay.

“And sure enough, the bills got paid,” she said. “There are ways of dealing with it.”

Offering parents an online electronic payment system has worked in some districts, said Walter Beesley, the child nutrition director for the state Department of Education. He also said the department could create a web page on the DOE site with suggestions on how districts can improve debt collection, from sharing best practices from other districts to tips on how to set up an online payment system.

A similar bill passed the committee and the full House in the last Legislature but never received a final vote.

Officials said they did not know how much unpaid school lunch debt Maine districts face now, but in January 2018 when the earlier 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 bill, which passed 11-0, now heads to the House for consideration. Committee member Rep. Henry Ingwersen, D-Arundel, was not present.

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

Twitter: noelinmaine

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.