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October 21 2021 07:00 pm

This Texas bill would cancel student lunch debt

Texas Politics

(Ellen O’Nan/The Paducah Sun via AP, File)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A newly filed bill in the Texas State House would ban debt accrued from school lunches for students in Texas.

On Wednesday, Texas state Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock), filed House Bill 4112, which would allow students to receive regular lunches despite what their meal card balance may be.

“In the richest country in the world, children are accumulating debt. We are shaming kids because they can’t afford their school lunch and conditioning them for a lifetime of indebtedness,” said Talarico. “School meals are essential to a student’s physical health and academic success. I filed HB 4112 to ban school lunch debt in Texas because no one should be in debt before first grade.”

Currently, children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, according to the School Nutrition Association. Meanwhile, those with incomes between 130% and 185% can receive reduced-price meals.

SNA indicates that 130% of the poverty level is a household income of $34,060 for a family of four and 185% is $48,470 for a family of four. The association’s most recent meal price averages show elementary-high school lunches range around $2.60 and breakfasts range around $1.50.

Nevertheless, thousands still struggle.

Nationally, there has been a rise in advocacy for the issue in recent years — prompting many across the country to pay off outstanding debts, including an Austin eighth-grader who paid $9,000 from a GoFundMe campaign toward the Austin ISD’s nearly $19,000 in school lunch debt.

But experts say this isn’t a permanent solution to the problem for thousands of families.

Currently, USDA regulations allow school districts to decide how to manage unpaid meal balances: alternatives have included limiting numbers of charges allowed and providing lower-cost, typically cold, alternative meals.

‘Lunch shaming’

The concept of giving students with unpaid balances alternative, cheaper meals has been widely criticized, with detractors claiming it encourages “lunch shaming,” or identifying students who have unpaid balances and aren’t able to get regular meals.

Ways of identification used in the past include wristbands, different-colored lunch cards, and the previous mentioned alternate meals.

In 2019, U.S. Senator Tina Smith and Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced the No Shame at School Act, which would prohibit shaming practices. It would also require schools to certify unpaid meal balances and forbid them from using debt collectors to receive payment.

Several states have laws in place against shaming practices, including New Mexico, California, Oregon and Iowa. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill in 2017 creating a grace period for students with unpaid balances.

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