Being a kid can be hard enough as it is—add on top of that being made to feel stigmatized for having unpaid school lunch debt and it can be even harder. That’s the motivation behind HB 202, a bill up for debate in the NH Legislature this year.
The challenge of school lunch debt
In recent years, schools have run into some major issues regarding lunch debt. In Claremont, NH, for example, parents owed over $30k in unpaid lunch charges just a few years ago. Even after an anonymous donor helped pay down this debt, it quickly grew back.
The coronavirus emergency may increase the challenge of school lunch debt. While various state and federal programs have helped keep families afloat, the number of families facing food insecurity has grown.
Meanwhile schools are challenged to get parents to complete the forms that qualify students for free and reduced lunch. Last year the federal government waived some of the requirements for free school lunch to ensure that every needy student got a meal during the coronavirus shutdown. When schools started offering all students free meals, however, many families that usually filled out paperwork to qualify for free lunch stopped submitting the federal forms. Now schools are looking at the potential for less state and federal funding based on the number of students officially filing for free and reduced school lunches.
The question is, how do schools and school districts deal with the mounting problem of school lunch debt without shaming kids who fall behind on lunch payments? HB 202 addresses part of this issue.
What’s in the bill?
HB 202 adds some new mandates to an existing law, RSA 189:11-a, which has to do with schools’ food programs. Among other things, the existing law requires schools to offer lunches to students either for free or at a reduced cost if their family meets certain federal income eligibility guidelines.
The existing law also requires school lunch payment policies to “ensure… that no student will be subject to different treatment from the standard school lunch meal or school cafeteria procedures.”
HB 202 gets much more specific. The bill would add a section to this law that would codify the following:
- Students couldn’t be identified or stigmatized publicly for failing to pay for a meal or owing a meal debt;
- Students couldn’t be asked to do chores or other work around the school to pay off this debt;
- Schools would have to communicate directly with the child’s parent or guardian about any meal debts, not with the student themselves;
- Schools that participate in federal breakfast or lunch programs wouldn’t be allowed to give students who qualify for free or reduced meals food that isn’t available to the rest of the students. For example, schools couldn’t give “cheese sandwiches” to kids who couldn’t afford to pay the normal price for lunch while giving lasagna and salad to the kids who could.
This bill began its life as HB 1127 in the NH House last year. That bill, like so many others, was passed by its committee but fell victim to the coronavirus shutdown.
Pros and cons of HB 202
At a recent bill hearing, no one from the public stood up to talk about a child being stigmatized due to school lunch debt. There are stories from other states, though, about students being barred from senior activities, limited in meal choices, or receiving neon-colored debt notices to take home. It’s possible that a New Hampshire school could adopt similar policies if school lunch debt skyrockets in the wake of the coronavirus. These policies can unjustly humiliate young students who have no control over their parents’ money.
Proponents of this HB 202 feel New Hampshire law should make clear that a child must not be stigmatized for owing lunch debt. Conversations about money owed to the school should be discussed directly between school officials and parents. While some of what this bill contains may already be addressed in other parts of the law or federal rules, codifying these specific mandates into New Hampshire law will help make sure they are enforced across the state.
Opponents point out that school lunch debt is reaching crisis levels not only in New Hampshire but throughout the United States. According to one report from 2019 , a whopping 75% of US school districts reported student meal debt. While no one wants to see children stigmatized, schools and school districts cannot carry the financial burden of these debts indefinitely.
According to Cheri White from the Office of Nutrition Programs and Services with the NH Department of Education, many of these protections are already in place. As noted above, NH law states that “no student will be subject to different treatment from the standard school lunch meal or school cafeteria procedures.” She was also unaware of instances where students were told they must “work off” their lunch debt by doing chores.
How you can get involved
HB 202 is currently in the House Education committee and has yet to get a full House vote.
If you are interested in voicing your opinion either for or against this bill, you can start by finding out who represents you and contacting them. If this bill makes it to the Senate, there will be more opportunities for the public to provide their input at a public hearing.
Update: The House of Representatives voted to kill HB 202 on April 7, 2021.