Iowa House bars school lunch shaming

Feeding kids linked to academic achievement, economic productivity

Members of the Iowa House unanimously voted this week to protect Iowa school children from shaming — and give communities an economic edge.

House File 2467 directs school districts to feed children, even those with meal accounts in the red, while continuing to pursue parents for payment. Alternate meals remain permissible, if the alternate is available to all students and not only those with negative meal account balances.

It’s an effort to end what’s known as “shaming” of children whose parents and guardians don’t or can’t pay. Across the nation, and here in Iowa, students have had lunch trays taken from their hands and dumped into trash cans while other students watched. For some students in the Cedar Rapids area, this happened when lunch accounts dipped as little as $1 into the red.

Other students have had large notices pinned to their clothing, or stamps placed on their body. A particularly troubling news report from another state indicated that the school was punishing children with chores because of their parents’ non-payment. Some school policies have become so punitive toward children that employees have opted to quit instead of following them.

The bill also instructs districts to set up a collaborative lunch account to hold donations from community members or advocacy groups. Money in that account could only be used to offset children’s lunch accounts that dip into the red.

This Iowa proposal follows a national trend to feed children, although it stops short of providing free or reduced-cost meals for all students. So, it’s a start — and one that will pay dividends immediately and in the future.

School Lunch
Students enter the Jefferson cafeteria, which prominently features a salad bar at the center of the room, during lunch at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, May 11, 2015. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

The largest cost to not feeding our kids is the damage hunger can do in our communities and state. Healthy food contributes to a child’s academic ability. Students who don’t receive meals at school are distracted in the classroom. Persistent hunger or malnutrition from habitual under eating interferes with normal physical and mental development.

The latest research on academic achievement and hunger shows negative impacts are not far-flung problems for our communities, but immediate (and wholly preventable) dips in academic achievement, behavioral health and social skill development.

Simply put, each time we allow a student to go hungry, we are sacrificing short- and long-term positive outcomes for our kids and our future.

I’m guessing that’s why the Iowa proposal gained such widespread, bipartisan support, and why it also should be immediately dispatched by members of the Iowa Senate to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for a signature.

Iowa can no longer afford to be a state that sacrifices its future, or that shames its children for circumstances beyond their control.

As noted in “Our Kids,” a book by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, “Poor kids, through no fault of their own, are less prepared by their families, their schools, and their communities to develop their God-given talents as fully as rich kids. For economic productivity and growth, our country needs as much talent as we can find, and we certainly can’t afford to waste it.”

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Saturday, March 10, 2018. Photo credit: Liz Martin/The Gazette