Friedman Policy Corner: Massachusetts Bill Seeks to Ban School Lunch-Shaming

by Alana Davidson

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute released a report this Spring on lunch shaming in Massachusetts schools. Lunch shaming is when children are denied a meal or given an alternative cold cheese sandwich because they cannot afford the food. Read more about this issue and what legislation has been put forward to address it!

“Denying children food and humiliating them because they are poor are not the values by which most residents of Massachusetts live. We can stop lunch shaming in Massachusetts and by doing so, continue to be the nation’s leader when it comes to education and child welfare.” – Patricia Baker, MLRI Senior Policy Analyst

In public schools across Massachusetts, children line up every day for lunch and fill their trays with healthy, nutritious food. Some children, however, may get to the front of the cafeteria line only to have their lunch tossed into the garbage in front of their friends, or have their hot meal swapped for a cold cheese sandwich because they don’t have enough money for food or have previously accumulated meal debt. A recent report from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) examined meal debt policies across the state and found disturbing results. Schools prohibited students, and their siblings, with meal debt from participating in field trips, graduation and after school activities, and withheld report cards and grades. Even worse, schools referred families with school meal debt to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) or referred them to outside loan collection agencies that tend to have high interest rates and fees. These unacceptable “lunch-shaming” policies stigmatize low-income students and their families and leave children hungry and ashamed.

Why does “lunch-shaming” exist in U.S. schools? The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides free or reduced-price meals to children who participate in certain federal assistance programs, are homeless or in foster care, or have an income at or below 185% of the federal poverty line. However, some families that qualify for the program may not be enrolled and even those with an income too high to qualify may still struggle to afford food. Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap found that 33% of food insecure people in Massachusetts have an income too high to qualify for federal assistance programs. The School Nutrition Association found in their nationwide 2016 survey that 76% of school districts had unpaid student meal debt and 38% of schools reported an increase in the number of free and reduced-price meal students who could not afford lunch.

In 2016 the USDA released rules that “no later than July 1, 2017, all SFAs [schools] operating NSLP and/or SBP [school breakfast] must have a written and clearly communicated meal charge policy in order to ensure a consistent and transparent approach to this issue.” However, MLRI’s recent report found that among schools examined 30% of elementary schools and 28% of secondary schools had no publically posted meal charge policies. Still more it was hard to find the policies that did exist, which were in student handbooks or school committee rules. Student handbooks can be hundreds of pages long. Schools need to post their meal charge policies in a place that is easy for families to find and access.

I filed this legislation because no child should be shamed for being hungry. Every child deserves access to a healthy, nutritious school lunch and this legislation will ensure that students in Massachusetts can access the meals they need to grow and learn.” – Senator Cynthia Stone Creem (D. Newton)

It is time for Massachusetts to join New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington State in banning these shameful practices and ensure that every child in the state is provided a healthy, nutritious school meal regardless of ability to pay. Senator Creem and Representative Vargas hope to do just that with their new bill (S.2390/H.4422). This bill bans all of the following with regards to a child’s inability to pay for a meal or a previously incurred meal debt: throwing out a meal, publicly identifying a student, excluding a student and the student’s siblings from extracurricular activities and school events, withholding reports cards or grades, denying or delaying a reimbursable meal to a student, and charging families fees and costs beyond what is owed for the meal. It also requires that all communication about meal debt is conducted with the parents rather than the child, which is currently not the case.  It should not be the child’s responsibility to deal with this issue, and the DCF should not be notified due to meal debt alone. In addition, the bill works to maximize federal reimbursements and minimize meal debt by outlining how often schools must check and enroll students who directly qualify for NSLP (TANF, SNAP, Medicaid recipients; foster child, homeless, migrant). For the students with meal debt who do not directly qualify for NSLP, schools are required to send parents information regarding SNAP and a NSLP application.

Finally, the bill includes language that schools and/or districts with 40% or more economically disadvantaged students must elect into the community eligibility provision (CEP), with exemptions. This provision came out of the Obama Administration and allows schools where 40% or more of students directly qualify for NSLP to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students. To learn more about CEP, check out the Food Research & Action Center’s guide. Currently, there are many schools in Massachusetts that qualify for CEP but have not enrolled, including Amesbury Public Schools, Conservatory Lab Charter Schools, Fall River Public Schools and Lynn Public Schools. CEP can lead to higher federal reimbursements for schools, increase participation in NSLP, and reduce administrative costs.

The bill has received a committee extension order, meaning it has more time to be acted on by the committee before this session ends (e.g. reported out of committee favorably). There will be a hearing on the bill in May. Call your state legislators and tell them to ban school lunch shaming and to support this bill! You can find contact information for your state legislator here. No child should be denied a healthy, nutritious meal or stigmatized because he or she cannot afford it. Let’s ensure all children in Massachusetts have access to healthy, nutritious food in school so they can succeed today and into the future.

Alana Davidson is a first year MS candidate in the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition program and one of the founding members of FFPAC. For the last three years she has interned in the anti-hunger field at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), Share Our Strength, and End Hunger Connecticut!. Her research and advocacy have centered on domestic food insecurity and nutrition-related issues. Davidson also contributed to MLRI’s anti-lunch shaming report.

The Friedman Food Policy Action Council (FFPAC) is a student-run organization of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Our mission is to advance evidence-based nutrition and agricultural policies in support of public and environmental health, by equipping students with the skills and relationships necessary to impact policy through advocacy. For more information, or to join FFPAC, please contact friedmanfpac@gmail.com.

 

Policy Corner: The $2.4 Billion Cost of Hunger

by Emily Cavanaugh

In February of this year, the Greater Boston Food Bank released a report on the hidden costs of hunger and food insecurity in Massachusetts. For the Policy Corner this month, Emily Cavanaugh reports on what the report’s findings mean for public health policy in the Commonwealth.

The Greater Boston Food Bank recently partnered with Children’s Health Watch on a report, released this February, documenting the hidden costs of food insecurity in the state of Massachusetts.  This first-of-its-kind study was commissioned as part of the mission of Children’s Health Watch to “inform public policies and practices that give all children equal opportunities for healthy, successful lives”. Children’s Health Watch is headquartered at Boston Medical Center, where the health effects of hunger can be seen firsthand.

The report states that these health effects cost the commonwealth a whopping $2.4 billion in 2016. High cholesterol, anxiety and depression, asthma, and diabetes were just a few of the conditions the study related to hunger. Indirect costs incurred by anxiety, behavioral problems, inattention or ADHD by food insecure children were also captured. Lastly, the study sought to account for work absence and lack of productivity caused by the related health conditions.

Costs of various diseases and poor health outcomes caused by hunger, as estimated by the study. (Image: MACostOfHunger.org)

Costs of various diseases and poor health outcomes caused by hunger, as estimated by the study. (Image: MACostOfHunger.org)

Though it’s difficult to prove certain causality by these methods, the study concluded that “as with the relationships between smoking tobacco and lung, throat and mouth cancers, the evidence of relationships between food insecurity and these health outcomes is so strong … that we believe we are justified in acting on strong evidence even if it is not absolutely conclusive and unassailable.” The combination of poverty and food insecurity contribute to poor health and educational issues and create a feedback loop, reinforcing the poverty that is the root cause of hunger.  While this study didn’t address racial disparities in food insecurity, a 2017 pamphlet from bread.org states that people of color in Massachusetts are 3 times more likely to face poverty and hunger, and in 2016, Children’s Health Watch reported significantly higher rates of hunger among immigrant families.  Intervening to address food insecurity can help to breaking that poverty-health-education feedback loop, enabling wellness and opportunity for all the Commonwealth’s residents.

Having established that hunger is a public health issue, how do we address it? The study makes recommendations in 3 main areas – healthcare practices, policy at the federal and local level, and academia. In the healthcare industry, we can consistently screen for hunger and intervene as necessary, pointing patients and parents to resources like SNAP and food banks.  GBFB has partnered with nine medical providers in the state, including three in Boston to implement the Hunger Vital Sign two-question that screening tool for food insecurity. As healthcare providers see the evidence of hunger during doctor’s visits, they are uniquely positioned to connect families in need with the available resources. Therefore partnerships between doctors and hospitals, foods banks, and other assistance programs could be very effective.

On a national policy level, the upcoming Farm Bill could contain changes to nutrition assistance programs, and the study recommends that lawmakers be pressured not to reduce SNAP funding. Reduction in funding could lead to reduction in the number of families served or amount of food dollars granted to each family, further reducing support that is already sometimes inadequate.

At the state level, lawmakers can mandate “breakfast after the bell” programs, especially in low-income communities. Several communities, from Boston to Worcester to Chicopee have implemented breakfast after the bell and have seen increases in attendance, and decreases in tardiness and nurse visits. The state could also increase funding for WIC and the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program. The CDC has acknowledged the link between nutrition, health, and academic performance, meaning hunger can limit the academic potential of children and should be addressed to provide more equality in our school systems. Access should be improved to state and federal assistance programs, first by creating a common application for MassHealth, SNAP, and WIC benefits. Filling out one set of forms to access multiple benefits would increase participation, particularly for those who are on the edge of qualifying for assistance.

We can all contact our representatives at the state and local level to bring these causes to their attention. You can find your legislator here, or contact legislators serving on specific committees such as public health or education. Contact your city or town officials to inquire about school food programs. Call a SNAP outreach partner organization and help residents enroll in SNAP programs.

Lastly, in academia, we can undertake research that supports these policy recommendations and sheds light on the causes and effects of hunger in our community.  Research regarding vulnerable populations can help target nutrition assistance where it is needed most. Though interventional studies are challenging to carry out, they provide strong evidence for effective solutions. A stronger causal link between hunger and health outcomes would strengthen the argument that food insecurity is a public health issue that needs to be prioritized in policy making.  Lastly, a review of costs to implement some of the recommended programs, compared to the annual $2.4 billion cost of adverse outcomes could make a compelling, black and white case for addressing hunger as a public health issue.

Emily Cavanaugh is a professional in the medical diagnostics industry with a Bachelor’s degree in biology and a persistent passion for nutrition.  After years of reading Marion Nestle books and following FFPAC on twitter, she decided to get involved by writing a Policy Corner article. She is also an enthusiastic home cook, bread baker, and gym goer.