Pa. ends ‘lunch shaming’ following cafeteria worker’s viral social media post

 In this April 29, 2014 file photo, two elementary school boys, ages 5 and 6, eat lunch (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

In this April 29, 2014 file photo, two elementary school boys, ages 5 and 6, eat lunch (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

Pennsylvania recently outlawed the practice of denying lunch to public school students who don’t have money on hand to pay for it.

The legislation, adopted as part of an omnibus school code bill, was spurred by a cafeteria worker in Western Pennsylvania who objected to a policy in the Canon-McMillan School District.

If a student’s lunch account was more than $25 overdrawn, kids in kindergarten through sixth grade would be denied a hot meal and given a cheaper alternative; older students would be completely denied.

“There were instances where students were given a lunch, and then when it was realized that the lunch was inadvertently given to them because the family had not paid, the lunch was literally taken off the student and then discarded, and that student not only didn’t get lunch, but was embarrassed in front of his classmates,” said State Sen. Jay Costa, an Allegheny County Democrat who sponsored legislation to end “lunch shaming” statewide.

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The practice made national headlines when the cafeteria worker’s Facebook post went viral in 2016.

“The cafeteria worker refused to do it and actually quit her job right after that, and that really sparked a lot of conversation here,” said Costa. “We shouldn’t hold the kids hostage and prevent them from having lunch on a school day because the parents failed to make the appropriate payments.”

Canon-McMillan had put the policy in place as a way of forcing parents to settle up their outstanding tabs, which collectively totaled up to about $100,000 a year. School district leaders disputed the cafeteria worker’s account of how its policy was affecting students.

The new law dictates that all students should receive meals and shouldn’t be stigmatized in any way. All communications about the status of lunch accounts must happen with parents.

Based on family income, students have long been eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in Pennsylvania. This policy change is aimed at those who don’t qualify for those programs, but are still struggling to make timely payments.

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