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VOL. 44 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 21, 2020

Lawmakers advance bill to prevent 'lunch shaming' students

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Schools would be banned from "lunch shaming" students unable to afford school meals, under a bill that was narrowly advanced by a Tennessee House panel on Wednesday.

The proposal, sponsored by Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons, would ban schools from requiring students with lunch debt to do chores, miss school activities, graduations or other activities that would publicly identify the student as being unable to pay for a meal.

Schools would also have to assist parents and guardians obtain free or reduced-price meals for their students and offer to find any other available assistance.

The measure passed the House Education Committee, 13-10. It must still pass the fully House and Senate.

Advocates across the country are trying to stop lunchroom practices that can humiliate children.

Embarrassing tactics have included serving cheap sandwiches in place of hot meals or sending students home with conspicuous debt reminders, such as hand stamps.

New Mexico passed a law against lunch shaming in 2017, and several other states including California, Iowa and Oregon have followed suit.

In Tennessee, the bill has faced resistance from the GOP-dominated Statehouse as some members cast doubt on the scope of the problem throughout the state.

Before the bill advanced on Wednesday, Republican Rep. John Ragan attempted to dramatically rewrite the proposal with an amendment.

The Oak Ridge lawmaker's amendment would require the state to provide "lunch at no cost to the student or the student's parent."

However, the amendment carried a $341 million price tag —- which other lawmakers pointed out would effectively torpedo the legislation because it's not currently budgeted in the governor's spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

"I am more than happy to sponsor that legislation as a separate matter ... but this amendment would kill this legislation," Clemmons said.

Ragan unsuccessfully attempted to block lawmakers from individually voicing their support or opposition — seeking instead a voice vote where no roll is taken — but was overruled by fellow committee members who went on to spike the amendment.

Free and reduced-price meals funded by the Agriculture Department's National School Lunch Program shield the nation's poorest children from so-called lunch shaming. Kids can eat for free if a family of four earns less than about $32,000 a year or at a discount if earnings are under $45,000.

The national school lunch program serves around 30 million children. Roughly 20 million of those students qualify for free lunches, and 2 million qualify for a reduced price lunch of 40 cents.

That means approximately 8 million pay the regular price determined by local districts — leaving students with unpaid meal debt open to possible lunch shaming.

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