Reps. Ilhan Omar and Deb Haaland Introduce Bill to Suspend School Meal Debt During COVID-19 Outbreak
WASHINGTON—Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-MN) introduced the Suspend School Meal Debt Act today to require school food authorities and local educational agencies to stop collecting unpaid meal fees during the COVID–19 pandemic, providing much-needed relief for families across the nation. They were joined by original cosponsors Reps. Gwen Moore, Grace Napolitano, James McGovern, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jahana Hayes, Jan Schakowsky, Jerry Nadler, Juan Vargas, Eleanor Holmes-Norton, Frederica Wilson, Adriano Espaillat, Andy Levin, Mark Pocan, and Rashida Tlaib, Bennie Thompson, Pramila Jayapal , Hank Johnson, Nydia Velazquez, Linda Sanchez, Danny Davis, Betty McCollum, Alan Lowenthal, Darren Soto, Barbara Lee, Ayanna Pressley, and Chellie Pingree.
“As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, Minnesotans continue to lose jobs, see their hours cut, and their income decline,” said Rep. Omar. “Families who are struggling to make ends meet during this crisis should not have the added burden of paying off their child’s school lunch debt. School meal debt results in students going hungry, experiencing lunch shaming at school by their peers and school administrators, and places undue financial pressure on their family. I am proud to work with Rep. Deb Haaland to provide essential economic relief for families by reducing the stress and putting money into their pockets—and will continue to fight for universal school meals in Minnesota and nationwide.”
“Families deserve support during this time of crisis, but school meal debt is adding an unnecessary burden to folks who are raising their families and experiencing layoffs, reduced hours, and uncertainty,” said Rep. Haaland. “Our bill will make sure families don’t have the additional financial burden of school lunch debt added to the stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”
According to the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the median amount of unpaid meal debt by school district across the US has soared 70 percent over the past six years. In just 2018, 75 percent of school districts reporting to SNA had unpaid meal debt ranging from $10 to $500,000. Often times, unpaid school meal debt results in students going hungry, experiencing lunch shaming at school by peers and school administrators, and places financial pressure on their family.
This straightforward bill would:
- Formally suspend the collection of all meal debt,
- Suspend any late fees associated with such unpaid meals,
- Cancel the meal debt for families and,
- Require the secretary of agriculture to reimburse each school food authority and local educational agency.
Last month, Rep. Omar authored the MEALS Act, to ensure that schools continue to receive funding for subsidized meals if they close during the coronavirus pandemic. The bill was signed into law as part of the Families First Coronavrius Response Act. Rep. Omar also authored and Rep. Haaland cosponsored the Universal School Meals Program Act to help provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to every student in America. Rep. Omar and Rep. Haaland also introduced the No Shame at School Act, to prohibit public schools from shaming students who are unable to pay for school meals or who have outstanding debt.
The bill has been endorsed by the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, Three Square Food Bank, Las Vegas, California Association of Food Banks, Social Security Works, Michigan League for Public Policy, Hunger Solutions Minnesota, Second Harvest Heartland, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., The Good Acre, Pillsbury United Communities (PUC), The Food Group, Center for Civil Justice, Hunger Task Force, Legal Services Advocacy Project Minnesota, Appetite For Change, Inc. , Children's Defense Fund - MN, Feeding San Diego, Minnesota Farmers Union, Tennessee Justice Center, SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, Poligon Education Fund, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger., Food Bank of Contra Costa & Solano, Shriver Center on Poverty Law, and Second Harvest of Silicon Valley.
“From day one of the Pandemic, our lunch service professionals have been hard at work, some risking their own health, so that every child who depends on school meals to prevent hunger is served while schools are closed,” said Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “But even before this national crisis, many American families had economic crises of their own and couldn’t afford to pay for the lunches their children needed to get through the school day. Relieving families and school lunch administrators from debt collection burdens and making school districts whole will help all of us focus on what is needed to get our economy, our schools and our children through the difficult months ahead.”
"The importance of this bill is that in a very stressful time parents and students don't need to worry about unpaid school lunch fees. The schools need to continue to feed those children because for many their school lunch is their most important meal of the day,"" said Rhys Williams, Executive Director of The Good Acre in Minnesota.
"Thousands of Minnesota families started the school year burdened by meal debt and collection practices. More than $2.3M was outstanding across 155 Minnesota districts. It's imperative that we remove this stress for families and for school districts,"" said Jessica Webster, Staff Attorney at Legal Services Advocacy Project in Minnesota. "
"To have families, and in particular children, in debt over food is truly shameful. Now more than ever we need to make sure that we focus on providing relief to families and school districts during these very difficult times and not burdening either group with additional worries. We thank Representatives Omar and Haaland and admire their leadership in making sure that we prioritize supporting our children's futures," said Derek Polka, Policy & Research Manager at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.
"Food is fundamental. It is the fuel that our children need to learn and grow and create a future for us all. Embarrassing a child or holding them hostage to hunger for not being able to pay for lunch is what is truly shameful. During this national crisis, when the lines at our food banks grow-ever longer, it’s critical that we suspend school meal debts. We applaud Reps Omar and Haaland for their leadership and for standing with the hungriest members of our communities," said Andrew Cheyne, Director of Government Affairs at the California Association of Food Banks.
“Many families, including those who depend on Social Security, face the un-American choice of keeping a roof over their children’s heads or keeping them from going hungry at school. The United States is the wealthiest country in the world. We guarantee a right to education. This must include the food that science has shown is essential for students to be able to learn. Today, as hundreds of millions of Americans suffer from a failure of leadership in response to a global pandemic, Representatives Omar's and Haaland's leadership is more needed than ever,” said Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works.
“Food security is undeniably linked to health, and this crisis underscores the critical role of school meals in ensuring children have what their bodies need to survive and thrive. We must remove every barrier to proper nutrition for kids as their families are affected by the illness and economic hardship rippling throughout our communities. The Michigan League for Public Policy applauds Representatives Omar and Haaland for centering children’s health in the nation’s response to this pandemic.” Said Gilda Jacobs, President and CEO, Michigan League for Public Policy.
“We have been concerned for years about children being punished, stigmatized, or shamed because they are unable to pay their school meal debt — it is long past time for Congress to resolve this issue,” said Abby J. Leibman, President & CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “In this moment of national crisis, we are distressed by growing food insecurity — COVID-19 is already exacerbating hardship faced by millions of Americans who struggle with food insecurity, as well as adding to the number of people at risk of hunger. We applaud this bill to provide a modicum of relief for families that have been struggling to put food.”