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MLRI Report: Massachusetts School Children Hurt by Unpaid School Meal Debt Policies

A new study released today by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) finds that the policies of many Massachusetts school districts towards families with unpaid school meal debt can be punitive towards children in low income households.  MLRI conducted an inventory of 154 Massachusetts public school districts over a six month period that do not provide universal free school meals.  The report is entitled “Denying Food and Shaming Children: Unpaid School Meal Policies in Massachusetts.

“Unpaid school meal debt is increasingly a common problem for school districts, for families and students throughout Massachusetts and the nation,” said Patricia Baker, MLRI’s Senior Policy Analyst and author of the study.  “But policies that deny children a hot meal or punish them or their siblings for meal debt leads to bad educational outcomes for the Commonwealth as a whole and humiliation for these kids in particular. Schools can do much more to feed students, reduce meal debt and communicate directly with parents.”

“As a cafeteria worker, I was often in the position of having to throw a hot meal away, and replace it with a cold cheese sandwich.  Some of the kids were upset, some even cry. All of the children in the cafeteria line could see that the child ahead was handed a cheese sandwich. It’s no secret to them, and it’s embarrassing to the child involved,” said Wendy Timmons, a former cafeteria worker in the Northbridge school system and a current AFSCME Staff Representative.

The study also looks at what other states are doing to address the problem of unpaid meal debt without punishing children already dealing with the burdens of poverty.  In January, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed legislation that would require all school districts participating in the NSLP to develop a plan to ensure that a student whose family has unpaid school meal fees is not shamed or treated differently than his or her peers.  In 2017, California, New Mexico and Oregon signed laws to either prevent shaming or provide meals to low income children.  And West Virginia’s Board of Education voted on a state-wide policy to address school meal shaming in 2017 that was implemented at the beginning of 2018.

“No one, not an educator, cafeteria worker or administrator should ever be put in the position of refusing a student a filling and healthy meal. Nor should any student be made to be embarrassed by her family’s inability to afford a meal,” said Barbara Madeloni, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “The answer to these issues lies in robust school funding that includes meals and political action to end the profound economic injustice in our communities.” 

“MLRI believes it is important to understand the lived experiences of families living in poverty.  With this report, we see that school districts throughout Massachusetts have explicit policies that seek to punish children for their lack of resources,” said Georgia Katsoulomitis, MLRI’s Executive Director.  “The Commonwealth should consider learning from the experiences of states like New York, California, and Oregon and pass legislation that will help these families and maintain our status as the nation’s leader in education.”

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