Lawmakers consider bill to stop lunch shaming, help indebted families in Conn.

CHESHIRE, Conn. (WTNH/CNN) - Lunchtime can be daunting for students if their families can’t afford to pay, but Connecticut lawmakers are working on a bill to make it easier by preventing “lunch shaming” and allowing donations for school districts in the red.

Lawmakers held a public hearing Tuesday in Hartford, Connecticut, to push a bill against what’s called “lunch shaming.” They shared sad stories about kids getting humiliated with written warnings or “assigned meals” when they have no lunch money.

“We have heard stories where kids get notes pinned to their shirts that say ‘You owe $20,’” said state Rep. Liz Linehan, a Democrat.

Linehan also said kids in her district in Cheshire are kept from going to recess or on field trips if they have no money in their accounts.

“No child should be going through the day without enough food to eat, and they should not be shamed or blamed in order to access that,” said Sara Egan with the state’s Office of the Child Advocate.

The bill before the state Senate Committee on Children would allow any public or private party to donate money to a school district to pay for an account that is in the red. A survey by the state School Nutrition Association revealed some districts had lunch accounts that were in debt as much as $90,000 a year.

“Obviously, what this exemplifies is how hard it is for middle class, working class families to make ends meet in the state of Connecticut, to the point that they can’t even afford their kids’ lunch,” said state Sen. Kevin Kelly, a Republican.

Most of the kids whose accounts fall into the red are working poor families who don’t qualify for a free and reduced meal subsidy because they are right on the edge of income thresholds. An average elementary school lunch runs about $2.75, which equals nearly $20 a week for one child to eat lunch.

“I don’t know how a family of four in the state of Connecticut can live with $47,000 a year and not receive any meal benefits,” said Jeff Sidewater with the SNA.

Districts are not allowed to use federal food money to pay for drained lunch accounts, which means a growing number are shifting dollars away from education to pay for food.

“Maybe the solution is to identify where those people are or where those children are and creating a fund. I don’t believe it’s something we can take it out of the education fund because schools are already strapped,” said State Sen. Marilyn Moore, a Democrat and the chair of the committee.

The legislation is expected to move on to the finance committee for further discussion.

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