Bill Spotlight: SB 250 Protects Children from Punishment for Unpaid School Meals Fees

March 2, 2017

By Michele Stillwell-Parvensky

Senate Bill 250 by Senator Hertzberg would protect children from punishment for their parent’s unpaid school meals debt.

We know that it’s never ideal for a student to go hungry and try to learn on an empty stomach. Yet, there has been a number of alarming stories over the past several years about students who are forced to skip school lunch and or given a lesser meal because their parents had unpaid school meal fees:

  • In Bedford, Kentucky, an elementary school student’s hot lunch was dumped in the trash in front of her classmates because her lunch account was past due.
  • Forty students at a Salt Lake City elementary school had their food trays thrown away and replaced with fruit and milk because their parents have outstanding balances.
  • A cafeteria worker at a Pennsylvania elementary school quit her job after she was required to take a hot lunch away from a first grader who had fallen behind on payment.
  • In Chula Vista, California, students with unpaid meal fees are denied hot meals and given a cheese sandwich, which has become a “badge of shame” for the students, who get teased about it by classmates.

The National School Lunch Program is one of the most important federal programs to combat child hunger and improve school attendance and outcomes. Children who do not qualify for a free or reduced meal because their parents have not applied for the program or have incomes above 185% of the federal poverty line (approximately $37,750 for a family of 3) must pay for a meal. While current law establishes protections for children certified for free or reduced price meals, there is no current policy protecting a child who has not been certified for school meals from being punished for unpaid school meal fees.

In recent years, there have been reports of students who are punished and publicly shamed for the school meal debt that went unpaid by their parent or guardian. The size of the problem is unknown but the lack of a standard national or statewide policy puts children in harm’s way and puts school workers, who are often forced to make these decisions, in a difficult position with little or no guidance.

In February, Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys introduced state legislation – the Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act – to address the problem. His bill – Senate Bill 250 – would ensure that school officials do not delay or deny food to punish students whose parents have unpaid school meal fees. The bill also requires districts to publish their policies for notifying and collecting debts from parents who have not paid school meal fees.

Children’s Defense Fund-California is proud to co-sponsor this bill with the Western Center on Law and Poverty and the Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations because we believe that no child should be denied a meal or treated differently by school officials as a result of their parent’s failure to pay a debt.

This legislation has become very timely following the federal government’s increased efforts on deportation of immigrants, including those with children, and numerous reports of families in California who are requesting that their public assistance cases be closed or are too afraid to submit applications for any public benefit, including school lunch. There is no current policy protecting a child whose parents have made the difficult choice to dis-enroll their children from school meals or not to apply altogether.

School meals are extremely effective at fighting the devastating effects of child hunger. SB 250 seeks to make sure that every child who needs one receives one and to prevent the use of a school meal from being used to discipline a child or coerce the child’s parents to pay an unpaid school meal debt.

Learn more about the Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act and how you can take action to protect children.