School bills target hunger, shaming
Surplus food pantries, end to taking away lunches proposed
AUSTIN — Lawmakers are trying to make it easier to feed hungry kids while preventing them from being shamed when their families don’t have enough money to pay for lunch.
The House gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill that allows schools to create food pantries on campus using surplus from the cafeteria that would otherwise be discarded.
Another bill, by Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, would prevent schools from taking meals away from students whose accounts run out of money. The education committee is expected to hold a hearing on the legislation next week. New Mexico recently passed a similar law aimed at preventing “lunch shaming.”
The bills come at a critical time, as nearly 1 in 4 Texas children are food-insecure, said Celia Cole, CEO of the nonprofit Feeding Texas. Public schools are often in the best position to help them, she said.
Food for thought
“Simply put, children who are hungry can’t learn,” Cole said. “So it is not just our moral responsibility to help feed them, but doing so is for the overall improvement of education and, in turn, the economics of our state.”
The food pantry bill receiving the preliminary nod Thursday would let schools use surplus food that’s packaged and unopened, unpeeled fruits and uncut or wrapped produce.
Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said he wrote the bill because he was haunted by stories from teachers and principals about how their schools had to toss uneaten food rather than give it to starving children.
One principal admitted that he left surplus cafeteria food on a table for students to take as needed and instructed his assistant principal to report him to the district office, Bernal said.
“They are literally throwing away hundreds of pounds of food every week when they really want to give it to those kids who need it,” Bernal said. “It just really struck me that this is such a basic human need.
“The idea of kids going hungry — it haunts you.”
Schools can donate the food to nonprofits. That sometimes means groups take the food off campus. But many organizations don’t bother picking up the food from campuses because it’s a relatively small amount.
And because of complex federal and state laws, schools often end up erring on the side of caution and throwing the food away rather than giving it to students.
Some campuses that tried to have “share tables” to offer unused food to students — such as unopened milk cartons or other packaged goods — were advised by school attorneys to shut them down, several San Antonio-area nutrition officials told a House committee in March.
Bernal said his bill makes it clear that kids can have the food. It goes to the full House for a vote next week and is expected to pass.
When a school lunch account dries up, kids don’t always know until they’re checking out in the line.
Cafeteria workers are often instructed to take the child’s hot-lunch tray and replace it with a cold sack lunch — usually a cheese sandwich. Meanwhile, the hot lunch is thrown away in front of the student’s classmates.
Giddings didn’t believe such a story when she heard it from one of her staff members, who saw it happen to her daughter’s classmate. But principals and others described similar experiences. One of Giddings’ interns said he had been embarrassed when peers teased him for having his tray taken.
“So kids pretend they’re not hungry and go through the day without food, because they’re not sure that they’re going to be able to keep the lunch or if it’s going to be snatched away from them,” Giddings said.
Educators and advocates for children have told her that such “lunch shaming” means kids will pretend they’re not hungry and avoid the line altogether.
Current law allows for children’s lunches to be taken away with no advance warning or attempt to contact parents. Giddings’ bill aims to prevent lunch shaming by establishing two-week grace periods on deficient accounts, requiring parent notification and ensuring that kids receive a regular meal that doesn’t reveal that their family might be struggling.
About 40 percent of Dallas kids are food-insecure, Giddings said, but not all of the children whose accounts run out of money are considered poor. Often it happens when families suddenly fall on hard times, she said.
Students have lunch at A. Maceo Smith New Tech High School in Dallas. Two state House bills aim to make sure kids don’t go hungry when their families can’t pay.