“Lunch shaming” and the “cheese sandwich of shame” have been making the news in recent weeks, as school districts are facing a new federal regulation to create lunch policies by July 1.

Here in Rhode Island, several school districts have adopted policies restricting students with unpaid school lunch debt to a lunch of a cold cheese sandwich, fruit, a vegetable and milk. Others are wrestling with whether such policies stigmatize and punish children whose families have debt.

Is it fair to punish second-graders whose parents aren’t paying? What about those who don’t qualify for free school lunch, but whose families are experiencing financial struggles?

With bipartisan support, Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Providence teacher, has introduced legislation aimed at not only wiping out lunch shaming, but ending stigmas associated with qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The legislation (2017-H 6150) would require all public elementary and secondary schools provide a free lunch to all students, no questions asked.

“Kids can’t learn when they are hungry, and there are a lot of hungry kids in school. In many cases, it’s a matter of the family’s economic situation, but sometimes it’s a matter of busy families. Maybe the child just forgot his lunch on the bus. The reason is not important. Kids need to eat, and it’s time we considered making lunch a regular part of what we provide to students,” said Representative Ranglin-Vassell (D-Dist. 5, Providence).  “It would do a lot of kids a lot of good, making sure they are well-nourished so they can focus on what they’re learning. It would also level the playing field so there’s no one who feels the shame of a label when they get to the cafeteria cash register.”

Nearly one in five children in Rhode Island is living in poverty. In most of the state’s core urban cities, including Providence, the rate is about double that figure. While federal programs already provide free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast to low-income students, Representative Ranglin-Vassell says such qualifications are rarely as discreet as they are supposed to be, and students receiving them can be subject to shaming by peers.

At some schools, those with lunch debt will have the food on their trays thrown away at the register, and their meal replaced with a cheese sandwich. Given the new federal requirement to create policies about lunch, districts across the state are wrangling to come up with policies that motivate parents to pay their debt without humiliating or punishing children.

Facing the same issues, New Mexico’s state legislature enacted a law last month instructing school districts to work with parents to wipe out lunch debt, and banning lunch shaming, which in some places across the country has included stamping children’s hands or requiring them do chores in exchange for a meal. The Rhode Island Department of Education has said the policy is the purview of individual school districts, but has recommended against providing an “alternative” lunch to children in arrears.

“Lunch shaming is a terrible thing to do to any child, regardless of the reason their bill is unpaid. In no case should a child be punished or humiliated for a bill going unpaid by his or her parent,” said Representative Ranglin-Vassell.

While preventing lunch shaming in Rhode Island was the impetus for the bill, Representative Ranglin-Vassell said she believes the approach of making free lunch available to all would solve a broader array of problems in schools.

“I think we should genuinely consider the benefits of universal school lunch. There is absolutely nothing crazy about saying we should just feed all children. Food is a basic human need, and for the six-plus hours a day they are at school, perhaps we should stop dividing children into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and just make sure they are all well-fed. Period,” said Representative Ranglin-Vassell. “I’m interested in having this conversation in the General Assembly and looking at ways Rhode Island can be a leader in creating universal school lunch so every child is fed and ready to learn.”

The legislation is cosponsored by Rep. Mia Ackerman (D-Dist. 45, Cumberland, Lincoln), Rep. John J. Lombardi (D-Dist. 8, Providence), Rep. Robert A. Nardolillo III (R-Dist. 28, Coventry) and Rep. Raymond A. Hull (D-Dist. 6, Providence, North Providence).

Representative Ranglin-Vassell said she has found many allies who are appalled by lunch shaming of children, resulting in bipartisan support for the bill.

“I was horrified to learn about a phenomenon called ‘lunch shaming’ happening right here in Rhode Island. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for a young child to be embarrassed in front of his or her peers because their parents may have forgotten to pay a lunch bill totaling a few dollars, which is totally beyond the child’s control. That’s why I signed on to this bill, to stop this sort of unfair practice from occurring in our schools, because the only ones truly being hurt by this are the children,” said cosponsor Representative Nardolillo.

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