Ilhan Omar Proposes Bill to End School Lunch Debt Shaming

Two Minnesota lawmakers introduced a bill to combat shaming students over school lunch debt. US Representative Ilhan Omar and Senator Tina Smith introduced a bill in June called the No Shame at School Act of 2019. The proposed bill prevents public schools from shaming students who cannot pay for school meals or those students with outstanding debt to the cafeteria.

The legislation would also require schools to track a child’s unpaid meal debt and ensure the federal government will reimburse the school meals for up to 90 days, according to a press release about the bill. “Everyone knows you can’t learn or perform well when you are hungry. We need to support students in Minnesota and across the country by ensuring that kids are not humiliated because of an inability to pay for lunch,” Smith said.

“Lunch shaming can stigmatize low-income students and hurt their ability to learn. Our bill would leave children out of it and focus on making sure school districts and the federal government work together to ensure kids are set up to succeed.”

Omar said in a statement that it is unfair for students whose families are having trouble paying for school meals to be singled out and shamed. “These students are subjected to various shaming practices. Some have been literally branded with stamps. Others are given cheaper, less appetizing meals than the other students. I am proud to introduce the No Shame at School Act that will prohibit the punishment and shaming of children whose family is unable to pay school meal fees,” Omar said.

“No child should incur a debt because of their financial constraints beyond their control.”

One of the supporters of the bill is Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile who was killed during a traffic stop by former St. Anthony Police Department officer Jeronimo Yanez in July 2016. Before his untimely death, Philando worked in the St. Paul school district in Minnesota as a cafeteria supervisor. To honor her son, Castile launched the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, which financially assists students who are unable to purchase lunch with their own money in the St. Paul and Minneapolis area. In April, Castile raised and donated $8,000 to Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope, Minnesota to help settle the school lunch debts for the graduating seniors, according to a previous statement from Robbinsdale Area Schools. Students could not graduate without paying off their meal balances, WCCO previously reported. “We are so grateful for this donation and the generosity of the Philando Castile Feeds the Children campaign,” Adele Lillie, Robbinsdale Area Schools nutrition director, previously said in the statement. “The impact of this donation will reach many students and allow families to focus on celebrating the seniors’ upcoming graduation.”

Castile told WCCO that one of the reasons she started the foundation was because her son would always lend a hand to a child in need, telling the station he would sometimes pay for their meals out of his own pocket. “The Foundation is designed by all the things Philando held dear to his heart: children, family and the community,” Castile said in the statement. “The Philando Castile Relief Foundation always cares. Philando was an awesome person and he is truly missed.”

Lunch shaming occurs throughout the nation and some parents are being threatened by school districts. For example, a school district in Pennsylvania reportedly sent a letter to approximately three dozen parents stating that failure to pay outstanding lunch debt could result in the child being “removed from your home and placed in foster care,” The New York Times reported. ‘Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch,” the letter from Wyoming Valley West School District, which was signed by Joseph Muth, the director of federal programs for the district, read. “This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency Court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

David Usavage, the vice president of the school board, told The New York Times that he initially thought the letter was a joke. The district reportedly owes $22,000 in breakfast and lunch debt, and that four students in the district owe more than $440. “We educate kids as best we can with what we have,” Usavage said. “We have a lot of successful kids, but never, never ever have we ever threatened anyone with this kind of letter.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in the various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.