A few weeks ago, The Hill circulated a piece about a nine-year-old boy who used his allowance to pay off everyone in his class’s lunch debts. The story was pitched as “heartwarming,” but it was not, because debt shouldn’t even exist for third graders, particularly for something as imperative as a hot school lunch. Ilhan Omar is working to make that a reality.
CNN reports that on Wednesday, Omar and Minnesota Senator Tina Smith proposed a bill that would attempt to put an end to public shaming over school lunch debt, which is a very real and terrible thing that exists. Dubbed the “No Shame at School Act,” the bill would prohibit certain practices like forcing kids who can’t pay for lunch to wear wristbands, or publishing their names on public lists, or subjecting children to debt collectors until their meals are paid off.
These humiliating methods have become more prevalent since July 2017, when the Department of Agriculture demanded that schools make an effort to recoup unpaid lunch money. About 75 percent of the country’s school districts report lunch debt, according to CNN. Omar’s bill also proposes a certification process that would free up federal funds for a reimbursement to schools with lunch debt for up to 90 days; currently, though the USDA’s federal lunch program spends $13.6 billion on reimbursements, none of that money goes toward unpaid lunch debt.
Omar, who spent a year working as a child nutrition outreach coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Education, says the government needs to stop chipping away at necessary child nutrition program—Trump’s budget would cut $1.7 billion from the program and “eliminate food assistance to millions,” as she pointed out at a press conference on Wednesday. (She was joined by Valerie Castile, mother Philando Castile, a Minnesota school cafeteria worker who was fatally shot by a police officer in 2016. A fund started in his memory wiped out school lunch debt in St. Paul in 2017.)
“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.
The bill is supported by Democratic Reps. Ben Ray Lujan and Deb Haaland of New Mexico.