A Senate committee Thursday unanimously approved a bill to prohibit "lunch shaming" - the practice of singling out students who owe the school cafeteria money or cannot pay for their lunch.
The Senate Education and Health Committee voted 15-0 in favor of House Bill 50, which would bar schools from giving students a hand stamp or wristband when their lunch account is empty, or ask students to do chores or throw away their meal if they cannot pay. The bill specifies that any concerns regarding students' lunch debt must be taken up directly with their parents or guardians.
The bill, which unanimously passed the House last week and now goes to the full Senate, would address the concerns of parents like Adelle Settle, a mother in Prince William County. She started fundraising to help students settle lunch debts after hearing about the lunch shaming phenomenon on the radio. Last year, she helped raise over $20,000 for students with meal debt in Prince William.
"A child has no control over their family finances, and a child should have no involvement in the discussion between a school and the parent to collect for meal debt," Settle said. "Our kids deserve to be treated equally and with compassion at school."
The price of a school lunch in Virginia public elementary schools averages $1.88, but it can be as high as $3.05 in Loudoun County and $3 in Fairfax County and Falls Church, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.
As in all states, schools in Virginia participate in a federal program that provides free or reduced-price lunches to children from low-income families. Eligibility depends on income and household size. A four-person household must have an annual income of $44,955 or less to qualify for free lunches.
Students who receive free lunches are not at risk of being shamed by school staff because their meals are provided by government funding; the students cannot incur debts. Of the 1.29 million students in Virginia's public schools, almost 572,000 - or 44 percent - qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
But lunch shaming can affect the remaining students who pay for their lunch out of pocket and occasionally may not have the money.
Reports of meal-debt shaming vary across the country but include practices such as stamping "I need lunch money" on students' hands, asking students to wipe down tables or throwing away the lunch that can't be paid for.
In Virginia, procedures handling school lunch debt vary by school district. Some school districts such as Chesterfield County allow students a certain amount of debt before refusing to provide them with a standard meal.
"Students unable to pay for their meal at the time of meal service are allowed to charge a breakfast and lunch," said Sean Smith, assistant director of community relations at Chesterfield County Public Schools. "This may result in a debt to the student's meal account with the expectation that the parent or guardian is responsible for full payment."
Once money runs out, Chesterfield schools will serve students an alternative lunch. Ryan Bass, who attended Chesterfield schools with his younger sister, recalled when she was given a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk when she didn't have lunch money.
Virginia's strides to abolish lunch shaming aren't the first. Last year, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., introduced a bill that would make it illegal to shame a student who doesn't have lunch money.