Ending School Lunch Shaming in California


November 8, 2017

Starting January 1, 2018, school officials will no longer deny a student their school meal, offer an alternative "shame sandwich" meal or publicly shame students for their unpaid meals fees. Thanks to hundreds of letters to policymakers from you and the hard work of our partners, CDF-CA's co-sponsored bill – SB 250 by Senator Robert Hertzberg – was signed into law last month. The new law is an important step forward towards ensuring no student in California goes hungry.

Senate Bill 250 ensures that school officials do not delay or deny food to hungry students as punishment for unpaid school meal fees, and it directs schools to establish a process for notifying their families about unpaid fees and collecting them. For families that cannot afford the meal fees, the bill directs schools to find a way to certify students for free or reduced-price meals or to reimburse them for the fees. The new law addressing the alarming stories of "lunch shaming" where students who are forced to skip school lunch and or given a lesser meal because their parents had unpaid school meal debt.

We hope that other states follow Calfornia's lead. As CDF Founder and President Marian Wright Edelman wrote earlier this year, "No child in rich America, the world's largest exporter of food, should go hungry. Adults in schools who set this policy or carry out the cruel and unusual punishments are the ones who should be ashamed."

"When President Truman established the National School Lunch Program, it was based on a fundamental principle that we will feed our kids in school because it helps them learn and respects their human dignity. This isn't partisan," said the law's author, Senator Hertzberg. "When you're treated differently as a child in school, it's shameful. And in this case, the child is being harmed as a tool to collect their parent's debt. That makes no senses whatsoever." The legislation won overwhelming bipartisan support.

Research by the Western Center on Law and Poverty found that more than a third of the most populous school districts in California had policies to share students or deny them meals for having school meal debt, and 63 percent did not have formal policies on their websites.

The law will take effect January 1, 2018, but the bill is already spurring action by school districts. As of August, Los Angeles School District (LAUSD) has ended their "shame sandwich" policy, which directed school lunch service employees to serve children half of a cheese sandwich if their parents owed debt. The new LAUSD policy ensures that no child will be denied food. "As the largest school district in state, LAUSD is marching forward against child hunger. Shaming a student or denying a child a school meal when a parent is unable to pay is never the answer. We as a community, state, and nation must do better and commit ourselves to ensuring no child goes hungry," said Shimica Gaskins, executive director of Children's Defense Fund-California.

The legislation was co-sponsored by CDF-CA, Western Center on Law and Poverty, Coalition of California Welfare Rights Organizations, Food Research and Action Center, MAZON and SEIU California.