Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is proposing a $1 million fund to pay off student lunch debt. It’s a small part of her education budget, but the goal is to prevent students from being stigmatized because their families are unable to pay, Chalkbeat reports.
Schools that accept the funds to pay off lunch debt would be required to implement policies protecting students from lunch-shaming practices. Those practices have included forcing students with lunch debt to wear a wristband, hand stamp or other identification, performing work to pay off meals, forcing a student to dump a meal after it was served, discussing a student’s debt in front of other students or even talking directly to a student about the debt.
- In addition, state Senate Majority Leader Jim Ananich has introduced the “Hunger-Free Student Bill of Rights” legislation that would make lunch available to all students, proposing the bill as way to protect students from being stigmatized at school.
Between 2016 and 2018, school lunch debt climbed from $2,000 to $2,500 per school district, according to the School Nutrition Association. Though most districts won’t deny students lunch, the debt remains on their student profile and may restrict them from participating in other activities.
The idea of making school lunches free is catching on across the country. Last year, the Tennessee General Assembly considered a similar bill, the Tennessee Hunger-Free Students Act, that would have required school districts to make ever effort to enroll eligible students in the free- or reduced-price meal program. The bill, which ultimately failed, would have prohibited singling out students by requiring them to wear wristbands that identify their status. The bill was voted down over concern that local school boards would not be able to recoup the money and was considered an unfunded mandate.
In Vermont, concerns over lunch shaming, mounting meal debt and Trump administration proposals to tighten nutrition program eligibility have triggered a bill that would make breakfast and lunch free for all public school students, regardless of their ability to pay.
The plight of students with lunch debt is also receiving attention from celebrities, philanthropists and even children who want to help their friends. Eight-year-old Keoni Ching from Vancouver, Washington, was inspired by San Francisco 49ers player Richard Sherman, who donated $27,000 to pay for students’ lunch debt. As an act of kindness, Ching raised $4,015 to pay off the school lunch debt of his classmates by selling handmade key chains for $5 each.