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Bills to End “Lunch Shaming” Pass Through House

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Danica Roem has been working to pass reforms to school meal policies for 3 years (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM)

During a recent bill hearing, Del. Lamont Bagby (D - Henrico) referred to Del. Danica Roem (D - Prince William) as the “lunch lady.” That’s because she’s championed legislation over the past three years to make sure kids get a meal at school, much of which has finally passed Virginia’s House of Delegates this year.

“When I introduced my kind of omnibus school meals bill, at the time, it was just a little bit too much for the committee to do all at once,” Roem said. “And so what I've been consistently trying to do since 2018 is break it down into smaller bits.” 

Cafeteria changes Roem has proposed include letting schools solicit donations to help students pay off meal debt, and letting kids take home leftover food after school. 

“No child should go to school hungry, and no child should have to leave hungry,” Roem said. “Every child should be fed. And as an Italian stepmom, my job is to feed everyone.”

Roem’s ultimate goal in all of this: Eliminating all school “lunch shaming.” One of her bills would prohibit school staff from requiring a student who can’t pay for a school meal - or who owes school meal debt - from throwing away or discarding their meal after it has been served. 

Salaam Bhatti, an attorney with the Virginia Poverty Law Center, considers offering a student an alternative, substandard meal for accruing meal debt another form of meal shaming. 

“It’s lunch shaming when they [school staff] offer a student an alternative lunch like a granola bar and an apple, or a cheese sandwich,”  Bhatti said in a 2018 interview about Roem’s legislation. “Because over a certain period of time, children are going to see that this kid is eating the same thing every single day and that’s going to create a stigma.”

That issue is addressed in yet another piece of legislation that cleared Virginia’s House of Delegates Monday. It would require every Virginia public elementary and secondary school to participate in the federal National School Lunch Program and the federal School Breakfast Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means all students will receive a balanced meal, not an alternative meal. It would also prohibit schools from using a third-party debt collector to collect on student lunch debt.

“I think that’s a huge headache, a huge traumatizing experience for parents who are unable to pay or are accruing meal debt to have a debt collector come after them,” Bhatti said. “We feel like the schools should be able to deal with the parents and the families directly.”

More low income students could also get free meals at school if the General Assembly passes a proposal in Governor Northam’s budget. There’s close to $11 million proposed to get rid of reduced-price meals in Virginia schools altogether, so that meals are either free or full price. 

Adelle Settle, founder of Prince William County non-profit Settle the Debt, says that would put a dent in Virginia’s school meal debt problem.

“A reduced-price lunch is pretty inexpensive. It's 30 or 40 cents a meal, depending on a few things. But over time that 30 or 40 cents can certainly add up to like a real sizable number,” Settle said. 

Income cases, Settle says, students in Prince William County have racked up as much as $500 in meal debt. As of the end of 2019, the district had a total of $300,000 in student meal debt. Settle says more funding is needed to help address meal debt coming from families whose income is just over the current limit to receive reduced-price meals. 

“These are working families who are struggling to pay all of their bills,” Settle said. “The program isn’t generous enough.”

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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