An elementary school lunchroom worker in Pennsylvania quit her job after she was ordered to refuse to serve a student a hot meal because there was a balance due on his food bill. The boy was supposed to be served a cheese sandwich instead.

“There’s enough wealth in this world that no child should go hungry, especially in school,” Stacy Koltiska told The Washington Post after the 2016 incident. The boy’s hot meal was taken away and thrown in the trash. His family was billed the $2.05 cost of the lunch, adding to the unpaid bill.

In Killeen, Texas, a teaching assistant watched as a 4-year-old preschool student was told she had no money on her account, and her milk and food were tossed in the trash. The girl walked away in tears, prompting Kelvin Holt to become an activist for ending the practice of shaming students when their parents don’t pay school lunch bills.

States across the country are looking for ways to end what is known as “lunch shaming.” New Mexico has outlawed the practice of denying kids food or serving them alternate meals, which marks the kids as supposed scofflaws.

Lunch shaming is happening in Maine, though no one knows how common it is. Nor does anyone know how much money schools are owed in the form of unpaid lunch bills, though one former superintendent said Maine school districts commonly face $7,000 or more per year in unpaid food bills. At the same time, schools throw away about 2 pounds of food per student per month, wasting food and money.

What we do know is that children should not be punished or stigmatized because of their parents failure to pay a bill.

LD 1684, sponsored by Sen. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, would forbid schools from denying students a meal or using food as a form of discipline. “ Studies show that missing meals and experiencing hunger can have a negative effect on academic performance and student behavior,” Maker said in a statement. “No child should ever have the threat of food denial held over his or her head or given a substitute meal because the family owes money or has no money for the meal. Hopefully, this legislation will help ensure that the nutritional needs of all Maine students are being met.”

While hunger has declined nationally, it has been on the rise in Maine. In Maine, 15.8 percent of households reported food insecurity between 2013 and 2015. Of this total, 7.4 percent reported very low food security, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

In Maine, 87 percent of the households that sought help from a hunger relief organization in 2016 included a child, a senior or a person with a disability, according to a recent study.

Hunger, poverty, as well as exposure to domestic violence, substance abuse, neglect, are known as adverse childhood experiences. These experiences can literally affect the brain development of young children and lead to behavioral and health problems later in life.

Maker’s bill has sparked an important discussion.

Other parts of the solution include helping schools successfully reach out to families that qualify for free and reduced-price lunches and that they work with families that don’t meet eligibility requirements but still struggle financially. In addition, many Maine schools qualify but are not participating in the Community Eligibility Provision, which will provide free meals to an entire school in low-income communities. Encouraging more schools to use the provision will diminish the problem of chasing after parents who don’t pay their children’s school lunch bills. And, reducing food waste will reduce costs.

As for the unpaid bills, they should not stand in the way of children being feed a nutritious meal at school.

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