U.S. Senator Tina Smith, U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar Introduce No Shame at School Act

WASHINGTON—Today, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced the No Shame at School Act,  to prohibit public schools from shaming students who are unable to pay for school meals or who have outstanding debt. Additionally, the  measure requires schools to certify a child’s unpaid meal fees and authorizes the federal government to reimburse the meals for up to 90 days.

“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,” said Sen. Smith, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “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.”

“Across this country, students whose families are struggling to afford school meals are being singled out and humiliated at lunchtime,” said Rep.  Omar, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee. “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. No child should incur a debt because of their financial constraints beyond their control.”

“The question of whether a child will eat should not be dependent on their family’s income,” said Congresswoman Deb Haaland, Poverty Taskforce Vice Chair on Families and Children Living in Poverty. “I’m proud to introduce a bill that reflects our values, and will ensure no child has the bear the burden of poverty at school. The No Shame at School Act not only protects children from lunch shaming it also provides further financial protections so schools can receive back payments for unpaid meals.”

Supporters of the bill include Valerie Castile, the mother of the late Philando Castile. Philando was a cafeteria worker who routinely paid for students’ lunches from his own pocket if they did not have enough money. He was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop over his tail light in 2016. Earlier this year, Valerie Castile gave Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope, Minnesota $8,000 to settle students’ lunch debts in honor of her son. The local community also honored that legacy through a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $178,000.

“Philando was a school supervisor in the cafeteria. He knew all of those children by name,” Veronica Castile said. “We’re one of the richest countries on this planet. And I don’t think that any child should be hungry. No child should be deprived of a eating a healthy meal. We need something to ensure that our children are taken care of. That’s what my son stood for—taking care of those children.”

“Seventy-five percent of school districts have students with school debt,” said Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. “This is an American problem. If we actually believe that our students should have a shot at success, the number one priority is to ensure that we provide students with a safe and welcoming environment, which means that they need to know that they can eat lunch and not be shamed. If we can give a tax cut to the rich, we can make sure that children are fed at school and not shamed.”

“No child should ever be punished, stigmatized, or shamed because of an inability to pay, yet lunch shaming persists because of draconian local policies, outdated income guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, and a lack of political will to ensure universal access for all children,” said Abby J. Leibman, CEO & President of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “As a leading voice on anti-hunger policies and programs at state and federal levels, MAZON is dedicated to ensuring that all children have access to the food they need, regardless of socioeconomic status. A hungry child cannot learn properly.”

“We need to make sure that this isn’t happening in schools across the country,” said Crystal FitzSimons, Director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs, Food & Research Action Center. “We know that there are a lot kids eligible for free school meals who are not receiving them. And we know that schools are struggling with school debt. Seventy-five percent of schools are carrying this debt and it is a huge problem for school finances. We are thrilled to endorse the No Shame at School Act because it tries to address all these issues.”

Original co-sponsors in the House include Representatives includes Reps. Deb Haaland, Barbara Lee, Jan Schakowsky, Mark Takano, Derek Kilmer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Sheila Jackson Lee, Adriano Espaillat, Adam Smith, Mark Pocan, Susan Wild, Sean Patrick Maloney, Ro Khanna, Alcee L. Hasting, Steve Cohen, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ben Ray Luján, Eddie Bernice Johnson.

This bill is endorsed by Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), Hunger Solutions Minnesota, Appetite For Change, Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis, Food Group Minnesota, National Council of Jewish Women, Minnesota Farmers Union, Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, American Federation of Teachers, Second Harvest Heartland and over 80 organizations.

You can watch this morning’s press conference on the bill’s introduction here.