Governor Baker signs school meals bill

Boston Statehouse

FILE – In this Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, file photo, kids eat lunch at an elementary school in Paducah, Ky. The Biden administration is expanding a program to feed as many as 34 million school children during the summer months. They’re using funds from the coronavirus relief package approved in March 2021. (Ellen O’Nan/The Paducah Sun via AP, File)

BOSTON (WWLP) – Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday signed a new state law that focuses on students’ access to school meals, with provisions around free breakfast and lunch as well as unpaid meal debt.

The bill Baker signed (H 3999) requires schools where a majority of students come from low-income families to enroll in federal programs allowing them to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students, with language allowing schools or districts to opt out in certain circumstances. It also takes aim at a practice known as “lunch shaming,” prohibiting schools from publicly identifying or taking punitive action against students who have unresolved debt for school meals.

“The new law is both timely and critical because it boosts federal nutrition dollars to schools across Massachusetts, and keeps children out of what should be an ‘adult only’ conversation on school meal debt,” said Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “But we know that more work needs to be done, at both the state and federal level, to ensure that no child is food insecure.”

MLRI’s Baker was the author of a 2018 report that looked at the meal debt policies across 154 Massachusetts school districts. That report found that 24 school districts had policies authorizing the use of collection agencies for meal debt and that 27 elementary schools and 34 secondary school districts had “policies that directly punish students, and often their siblings, for school meal debt,” including barring students from extracurricular activities or graduation exercises.

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