Maine lawmakers are considering a proposal to shield students from negative repercussions if they are unable to pay for lunch at school.

The bill, introduced Wednesday by Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, requires that students be fed without question and that discussions about how the meal is paid for be between the school and the parent. The bill prevents a student from being singled out in any way that could be observed by peers, which is a concept supporters call “food shaming.”

“At the end of the day, it is the student who is suffering or feeling shame for the inability of their parents to pay for the same meal being enjoyed by their peers,” said Maker, who sponsored the bill on behalf of the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers union.

Representatives of several education organizations and other professionals testified Wednesday that they support the concept, but the discussion quickly turned to how schools can afford to provide free meals and when families fall behind paying, how the debts should be collected.

Eileen King, executive director of the Maine School Superintendents Association, agreed with others that reliable data about how widespread the problem is in Maine are not available, but she said the financial toll is known to some extent.

She said it is not uncommon for schools or districts to end fiscal years with $7,000 or more of unpaid school lunch debt. King said her organization supports students being fed no matter what but needs guidance from the Legislature about debt collection, especially from families who seem able to pay but for whatever reason, just don’t.

“If the students don’t pay, they don’t pay and we don’t get the money,” said King of her experience as a former superintendent in Boothbay. “We won’t put the children in the middle of it.”

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, agreed.

“I wish we didn’t have to legislate feeding hungry children but if even one child in our community is denied food or humiliated because of parents’ negligence, we need to do something,” Kilby-Chesley said.

No one testified in opposition to the bill during a lengthy hearing Wednesday in Augusta, but some committee members expressed reservations about whether it’s a problem that needs intervention from the Legislature.

“It’s shameful if it goes on anywhere but there are other ways to handle this if it’s not widespread,” said Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor.

The Education Committee will continue to work on the bill before making a recommendation to the full Legislature in the coming weeks.

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Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.