Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen. Tina Smith, both Democrats from Minnesota, introduced a bill on Wednesday that aims to combat school lunch debt shaming after a string of incidents that caused outrage this year.
“Across this country, students whose families are struggling to afford school meals are being singled out and humiliated at lunchtime,” Omar said in a news conference Wednesday.
The bill comes at a time when public schools across the country are facing significant levels of lunch debt.
“Everyone knows you can’t learn or perform well when you are hungry. We need to support students in Minnesota and across the country by ensuring that kids are not humiliated because of an inability to pay for lunch,” said Smith, a member of the Senate Education Committee, in a statement.
Omar said the bill would implement various steps to eliminate practices that highlight students’ lunch debt or punish them for it, such as identification methods like tokens and wristbands, lists of children who have outstanding debt and the use of debt collectors to obtain meal fees.
Schools would receive federal reimbursement for unpaid student meals for up to 90 days if they follow a certification process laid out in the bill.
Alongside Omar at the news conference were Democratic Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Deb Haaland of New Mexico, who expressed their support for the legislation.
Valerie Castile – the mother of cafeteria supervisor Philando Castile, who was killed by a police officer in 2016 – was also in attendance. Omar commemorated Valerie Castile’s commitment to ending hunger and underscored the Minnesota native’s donation of $8,000 to a local high school to help relieve student debts.
Omar criticized the Trump administration for budgeting decisions that she said would exacerbate the issue of hunger in the country.
“Just take a look at Trump’s budget, which would cut $1.7 billion from the child nutrition program and eliminate food assistance to millions,” Omar said.
The Minnesota lawmaker also pointed out that there are systemic causes that can make a hunger crisis possible in one of the world’s largest economies.
“We are a nation of tremendous wealth. Hunger in this country is the result of policies that keep wages low and funnel wealth to the top. It is the result of a political system that says it is OK to spend money on tax breaks for millionaires and the same companies who taint our economy, but we can’t afford to fund meals for our kids in the streets,” Omar said.
Other noteworthy supporters of the bill are MAZON, a Jewish advocacy group that aims to fight hunger, and the Food and Research Action Center.