Cruel and Humiliating Responses to Unpaid School Lunch Debt Are Now Unlawful
“An Act Promoting Student Nutrition,” Chapter 62 of the Acts of 2021, went into effect on October 14, 2021 as an emergency measure. Codified as M.G.L. c.71, §72A, it prohibits the practice of “lunch shaming” throughout the state, which occurs when a school publicly identifies or punishes a student who has unresolved debt from school-based meals. No school employee, agent, or volunteer shall:
Take action that would publicly identify students who could not pay for their meal, either currently or in the past;
Serve students with unpaid meal debt an alternative meal that is not available to all students in the cafeteria;
Deny students a meal as a form of punishment or discipline;
Dispose of an already-served meal because of students’ current inability to pay or because of unresolved debt;
Prohibit students or their siblings from attending or participating in non-fee-based activities, field trips, or school events solely because of the unresolved meal debt;
Prohibit students from receiving their grades, transcripts or report cards, or attending graduation events solely because of the unresolved meal debt; or
Require parents or guardians to pay fees or costs in excess of the actual amounts owed for meals previously served to their student.
School superintendents (or their designee) must notify parents and guardians about unpaid and unresolved meal debt. School districts must also determine if the student is eligible for free or reduced-priced meals. Until the eligibility determination is complete, the student cannot be denied access to a school meal.
In addition, the law requires that certain school districts or individual schools must implement one of two federal community eligibility programs to provide universal free school breakfast and lunch to all students. There are various waiver provisions which require the school district or individual school to justify to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that implementation of the federal programs will result in financial hardship to the district or individual school.