DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The embarrassment of having a credit card declined for insufficient funds is hard enough for adults.
For a child, standing in a school cafeteria line, a similar experience — through no fault of their own — can be traumatic.
A bill that passed the Iowa Legislature this week targets so-called "lunch shaming," where students whose families owe money are singled out, given inferior meals or even have their food dumped in the garbage.
"The personal stories from all across Iowa from parents and children on food shaming could not only break your heart but are in stark contrast with the fundamental Iowa way that we treat our children," Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, a Cedar Rapids Democrat, said during floor debate on the bipartisan bill, which awaits final approval from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.
The challenge faced by schools is how to pay for meal services when families can't or won't replenish school meal accounts. Some still provide meals, while others turn to cheaper substitutes or allow a child to go without food altogether. Many students living in poverty qualify for federal subsidies that cover the full cost of their meals, but not all eligible families complete the necessary paperwork.
Some districts have turned to private donations. Earlier this year, for example, the Fresh Thyme Farmers Market in Ames ran a fundraising promotion to help the Ames Community School District, donating about $7,750 over three weeks to pay for student meal debt, which exceeded $52,000.
Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Washington-based nonprofit Food Research and Action Center, has examined Iowa's bill and thinks it will be effective.
FitzSimons said the bill would make sure food served to children isn't thrown away, that children whose families owe money aren't punished and that schools don't make public which families owe unpaid meal fees.
"We know that kids who are hungry can't learn, have a hard time focusing and concentrating, and there is a whole range of academic impacts that come from kids being hungry," FitzSimons said.
Iowa is following the lead of several states that have passed anti-shaming legislation. New Mexico was the first, approving such a law about a year ago. The U.S. Department of Agriculture required schools to adopt policies on unpaid meal debt by last summer.
New York, California and other states since have launched anti-shaming efforts, including a bill signed into law in Virginia last month. Lawmakers in Louisiana and Maine are currently considering bills similar to Iowa's legislation.
Some states, such as Oregon, require schools to provide the regular meal to children regardless of how much debt they've accumulated. Iowa's legislation encourages serving regular meals but doesn't require it.
Nationally, three-quarters of school districts have some level of unpaid meal debt, according to the School Nutrition Association. The total amount of school meal debt in Iowa isn't known. The Iowa Department of Education doesn't collect data, although spokeswoman Staci Hupp said an informal, anonymous survey that included about one-third of Iowa organizations that participate in the school lunch program found just over $300,000 in negative balances.
"It all really depends on how each individual school district has decided how to handle those balances," said Scott Litchfield, the legislative chairman of the School Nutrition Association Iowa.
Litchfield said individual school district negative balances can range from $500 to in excess of $50,000. The average meal costs around $2.75 — "a lot less than any restaurant that I've ever been to," Litchfield said.
Schools would be allowed to make claims against delinquent families' tax refunds and lottery winnings, although a nonpartisan analysis of the bill concluded districts won't have the necessary information to file claims.
A federal program known as community eligibility offers another path for high-poverty schools. The program allows for certain qualifying schools to offer free meals to all students.
FitzSimons said the program is a "game-changer for schools." More than 100 schools in Iowa already participate in the program, including two-thirds of those in the Des Moines Public Schools.
Amanda Miller, the district's director of food and nutrition, said Des Moines is still evaluating how it will respond to the new legislation if it's enacted. But she said that community eligibility has made a positive impact for the district, and it avoids accumulating unpaid debts.
"It levels the playing field," Miller said.
Private giving is another possible way to address meal debt. School districts will be allowed to set up special funds to collect donations under the new legislation, which requires the money to be used only for that purpose.
Memory Bleth, a Council Bluffs woman who gave $3,000 to a local elementary school in 2016, said she doesn't understand how schools could pay large salaries to administrators when some children can't afford lunch.
"I didn't realize that was a thing that people even had to worry about," Bleth said. "To me, that is just a burden that people shouldn't have on their shoulders."
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