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A Bill to Promote Student Nutrition has also passed the Senate and must be approved by Governor Charlie Baker, who must sign the bill.
Legislation would require individual schools and school districts with at least 50 percent of their students falling into a low-income category to participate in a federal program that offers all students free breakfast and lunch. Wong said the bill allows school districts to apply for a waiver if participating in the program causes financial difficulties.
School districts participating in the national school lunch program are instructed by the bill to maximize federal revenues while minimizing the debt of students’ families. The bill also requires the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to establish protocols to help school districts achieve these goals.
The bill also requires DESE school principals to provide guidance on how parents or guardians can be informed of a student’s unpaid food debts. School districts will be given 30 days from the date of notification to determine whether the student is eligible for free or discounted meals. During the 30 days, students cannot be denied access to a school lunch, Wong said.
The law provides strong safeguards to ensure that students are not penalized if they are unable to pay for a school meal or owe money on a previously served meal. The bill bans schools from taking action that publicly identifies a student who owes money for meals. It also prevents schools from serving a student with unpaid food debt, an alternative meal that is not available to all students.
Students are not denied a meal as a form of behavioral discipline or punishment. The bill also prohibits the disposal of a meal that has already been served due to a student’s insolvency or past unresolved food debts. Schools are not permitted to block a student or their siblings from participating in extracurricular activities, excursions, or school events due to the student’s unresolved food guilt.
It is not allowed to prevent a student from graduation or to block the release of a student’s grades, official transcripts, or testimonials because of unresolved food debts. Schools are also prohibited from requiring a parent or guardian to pay any fees or expenses for meals previously served to the student in excess of the amounts actually owed, Wong said.
Hannah Chadwick can be reached at [email protected]