Students whose families can’t afford school lunches could not be identified or singled out, and the federal government would help pay the balance to schools for those families that fall behind in lunch payments, under legislation introduced by Minnesota U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen. Tina Smith.

“Students … are being singled out and humiliated at lunchtime,” Omar said Wednesday at a Capitol Hill news conference. She was joined by Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker who was killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop. Valerie Castile recalled how her son often paid for students’ lunches out of his own pocket if they didn’t have enough money.

“We’re one of the richest countries on the planet, and I don’t think any child should be hungry. No child should be deprived of a nutritious meal,” Castile said. In May, she gave Robbinsdale Cooper High School an $8,000 check from the Philando Castile Relief Foundation to clear the lunch debts of the school’s graduating seniors.

Under the legislation, schools would be prohibited from requiring students with outstanding lunch debts from being identified with tokens or wristbands. Schools could not publish lists of children with outstanding debts, or use debt collectors to obtain meal fees. In addition, schools with students who have unpaid meal fees would be eligible to receive retroactive reimbursement for the federal government for that child’s meals for up to 90 days.

Minnesota and 15 other states already have laws on the books that prohibit schools from engaging in demeaning practices related to students’ lunch debts, but advocates have said such practices still persist in some schools. Problems have surfaced around the country: earlier this year, a cafeteria worker in Canaan, New Hampshire, said she was fired after a manager noticed her giving a student lunch even though he couldn’t pay for it. The company that ran the cafeteria denied that account.

“We must end this once and for all through federal action,” said Josh Protas, vice president for public policy at MAZON, a Washington-based anti-hunger advocacy group.

The bill has not yet started to move through the House committee process, so it’s unclear how much it would cost. But Omar said she’s discussed the legislation with Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and that he signaled he would get behind the effort.

The legislation could face tougher resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate, but the bill’s sponsors are working to line up bipartisan support.


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