Guest column by Senator Joyce Maker

I think we can all agree that it is a parent’s responsibility to adequately provide for their child and that failure to do so due to oversight or neglect is by no means the child’s fault. That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to sponsor LD 1684, “An Act Forbidding Food Shaming, Food Denial and the Use of Food as Discipline Involving Any Child in Maine’s Public Schools.”

For those of you who aren’t aware, food shaming occurs in some school districts around our states as a means to collect debts owed for hot lunches. 

It refers to an occurrence where a student who does not have the money for a school meal or whose family may have an unpaid school meal debt is not allowed a hot lunch. The student is instead given a replacement meal, such as a cheese or peanut butter sandwich. Being served something different from the other students is a form of stigmatizing the student, I believe, potentially causing embarrassment and humiliation.

With food denial, students are not allowed to eat because they don’t have money to pay for breakfast or lunch, forcing them to go hungry.

While many from less fortunate families qualify for free or reduced lunch, sometimes the parents are too proud to apply for the assistance, or the paperwork somehow gets lost in the shuffle. Often times these students heavily rely on their school lunch, as it may be the only hot meal they will receive that day. 

Other times, families can afford the meals, but for some reason or another, the parents fail to send their children to school with enough money to pay for a hot meal.

Regardless of the reason, no child should ever have the threat of food denial held over his or her head or be given a substitute meal because their family owes money. 

Since submitting this bill, I’ve had many people ask if this is really a practice that takes place in Maine, and since I agreed to sponsor it, a number of parents and teachers have come forward to confirm that food shaming or denial are practices that are currently used in some Maine school districts.

During the public hearing, the Education Committee heard of one instance where a senior in a public high school was called out by name during a school assembly by the principal who read off a list of names of students who would not be permitted to graduate unless their outstanding debts were paid. The student was understandably mortified and the parents had not been notified of the outstanding debt prior to the assembly, which was only $2.10.

We also heard from many other supporters during the public hearing, with the Maine Department of Education testifying neither for nor against. While they had some suggested amendments, they agreed with me that communications about outstanding debts should be settled between the adults, as debt is not the responsibility of the child. 

Some of our schools may already be doing an excellent job on this topic and I applaud them for that. I understand that some districts cover the cost of breakfast and lunch and, as a result, are having no problems. This varies, however, from district to district. 

My aim for this bill is that we not allow students to be served lesser quality meals when they cannot pay and that we do not allow schools to correspond with students regarding their debts. 

I am not suggesting that parents shouldn’t be kept on the hook for those debts, but at the end of the day, it is the student who is suffering or feeling shame for not being able to afford the same meal being provided to his or her peers and I feel passionately that no student should be turned away from a hot meal or singled out for their inability to pay.