By Hunger Free Oklahoma
Recently, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez signed the Hunger- Free Students’ Bill of Rights in an attempt to end the practice of shaming children who have outstanding debts on their school lunch accounts. According to coverage of the legislation, students and employees have reported such practices as stamping a child on the arm with “I need lunch money,” throwing a student’s hot meal in the trash when their account has insufficient funds, and forcing students to clean cafeteria tables in exchange for a meal. This is unacceptable.
Hunger Free Oklahoma believes that all children deserve three meals a day and we know that for many Oklahoma students, school breakfast and lunch are the only consistent meals they get in a week. Kids that are turned away at the register are kids that are not eating a meal and hungry kids perform worse in school. We commend New Mexico for this step. While this legislation ends an alarming practice, there is another solution that makes the issue of school meal debt disappear.
There is an option that does not require legislation and maximizes the chances that vulnerable students get critical nutrition. The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows schools to feed every student breakfast and lunch for free. CEP is a United States Department of Agriculture program and Oklahoma lags far behind other states in its adoption. CEP not only prevents any child from being turned away at the register, it ensures that all students have access to healthy food without the stigma normally associated with receiving free or reduced price meals. While not every school in Oklahoma qualifies, according to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), 349 school districts in our state do. Only 94 of them currently participate.
Expanding CEP accomplishes the same goal as legislation to end lunch shaming by eliminating the possibility of school meal debt. CEP also increases participation in school breakfast and lunch and eliminates stigma associated with eating school meals. It can also reduce paperwork for schools and help their bottom lines. The Oklahoma State Department of Education provides support to schools that are interested in the program. Hunger Free Oklahoma is here to help schools determine if they are eligible for CEP and help implement the program in a way the helps students and schools.
No child deserves to be shamed because they can’t afford lunch. Through CEP, we can end this practice by solving a bigger problem.
UPDATE: For schools that do not qualify for CEP or for whom CEP is not financially feasible, the USDA requires a school district wide policy on unpaid meal debt. This policy must be presented to Oklahoma State Department of Education by July 1, 2017. For more information about this policy and recommendations for a policy that reduces stigma and prevents lunch shaming see our new blog post here.