Ensuring children are not denied food at school is especially important in Maine.

School lunch shaming, the practice of punishing students or taking away their food if their parents are behind in paying their bills, wasn’t even a familiar concept a couple years ago. Now, thankfully, lawmakers are working to stop the absurd practice.

At the federal level, Rep. Chellie Pingree is leading an effort to encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch program, to help schools develop better alternatives than taking food away from hungry children or feeding them a sandwich instead of a hot lunch.

“No students should be asked to do chores in front of their peers, made to wear wristbands or handstamps, or have their lunch thrown out as their friends look on,” Pingree and 68 other House members said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sent last week. “For many students, meal shaming stands between them and their only meal of the day. It is almost unthinkable that every day thousands of students across the country are singled out because they lack the funds to afford a meal.”

There are several ways the federal government can help, while ensuring that schools don’t bear the brunt of unpaid bills, Pingree said in an interview. An immediate step should be to ensure that schools are participating in the Community Eligibility Provision, which will provide free meals to entire schools 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.

A bigger step would be to have the federal school lunch program cover the cost of all school meals, not just for those who meet income limits. Most developed countries do this.

Already, states across the country are looking for ways to end lunch shaming. New Mexico was the first state to outlaw the practice of denying kids food or serving them alternate meals, which marks the kids as supposed scofflaws. Texas and other states have since enacted laws to stop the practice.

Lawmakers in a dozen states, including Maine, are considering ways to end the practice.

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.

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 to compel payment of meal debts. An amended version of the bill was passed by lawmakers this spring, but it is now in limbo awaiting funding, which likely means it will not be enacted into law this year.

Ensuring children are not denied food at school is especially important in Maine. While hunger has declined nationally, it has been on the rise in Maine. Some 15.8 percent of Maine households reported food insecurity between 2013 and 2015. Of this total, 7.4 percent reported very low food security, according to data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, one of the highest rates in the nation.

Lunch shaming unfairly stigmatizes children and often wastes food. It is the wrong way to solve a real problem. Efforts to find alternative solutions should be supported.

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