Louisiana has one of the highest rates of child food insecurity in the nation, with nearly 1 in 4 Louisiana children living in a household that doesn’t have enough food to eat throughout the month. That’s 261,000 children in our state whose parents are, at times, struggling to figure out how to pay for their families’ next meal. Child hunger has an impact on educational outcomes. An abundance of research shows that hungry children do more poorly in school and have more behavioral problems in the classroom, because they cannot concentrate as well as children who have enough to eat.
School is the one place where children should be guaranteed full, nutritious meals regardless of how much their parents earn. Unfortunately that is not the case in Louisiana schools. Current state law allows schools to deny students a meal if they do not qualify for free meals but come to school without money on a given day, or if they have accrued unpaid meal debt. Current law requires that public elementary school students be given a sandwich or snack in place of the denied meal, but students in higher grades may receive no food at all. In 2017, data from the Louisiana Department of Education reveal that students were denied meals 439 times at 23 different schools across the state.
Legislation authored by Rep. Patricia Smith and Sen. Blade Morrish (House Bill 284 and Senate Bill 245) aims to reduce child hunger and ensure proper nutrition for students by eliminating the practice of denying school meals or stigmatizing students who don’t have money to pay. The Advocate documented one large scale case of “school meal shaming” in St. Tammany Parish in December 2017, when an elementary school advertised a celebration that could only be attended by students whose parents had paid off any outstanding meal debt. Other practices that single out students who have meal debt or cannot pay for a meal include throwing a student’s meal away if they cannot pay, stamping a child’s hand, or making the child do chores in exchange for food.
Children have no control of over their families’ finances, and they should not singled out or forced to go hungry due to their parents’ inability to pay. SB 245 and HB 284 would require that all communications and actions regarding unpaid meal debt be directed to parents and not the student. In addition, the legislation requires school districts to take steps to double check that eligible children are signed up for free and reduced-price school meals.
Many children who are suffering from food insecurity in Louisiana qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but not all. According to Feeding America, 72 percent of food insecure households with children have incomes low enough to qualify for nutrition assistance programs such as free and reduced-price school meals and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The other 28 percent of food insecure families in the state have incomes slightly above the eligibility limit for assistance, and therefore do not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals or SNAP.
HB 284 and SB 245 also encourage the Louisiana Department of Education to identify and provide guidance to schools that are eligible to participate in the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with high percentages of low-income students to serve free breakfast and lunch to all students, regardless of household income. According to LDOE data, 961 Louisiana schools have opted into the Community Eligibility Provision and therefore can entirely avoid engaging in any practices that single out students or shame them for not having enough money. There are still at least 159 schools, however, that are eligible but have not opted into the Community Eligibility Provision.
HB 284 and SB 245 are critical to ensuring that children who cannot pay are treated with compassion in the school cafeteria, and are not handed a cold cheese sandwich or denied a meal altogether. Families that are struggling to pay for school meals may also have difficulty affording enough food at home, so school may be some childrens’ only opportunity to eat a full, nutritious meal on a given day. This legislation would ensure that all Louisiana schools are part of the solution to child hunger, rather than part of the problem.
By Jeanie Donovan