You see him in the hallway, waiting casually until the line is almost gone, but keenly aware of its steady movement through the kitchen. If he waits too long, the kitchen ladies will have moved on to their next task, but if he goes too soon, too many students will still be around to hear his request. “Any leftovers today? I know my mom hasn’t paid the bill yet, but she promises as soon as she gets paid …”

Scenes like this play out across our state daily. These are the kids that social welfare leaves behind — their families make too much to qualify for free or reduced meals, but there is never enough money to pay all the bills. Money slated for school lunches went to fill the oil tank, or fix the car, or pay for the antibiotics for his little brother’s recurrent ear infections. So he learns to wait and to humble himself to ask, again, for food. Some days there is no extra food and his last period class is torture. All he hears is his stomach rumbling, and he prays it is not so loud that the teacher — or worse, his classmates — hears it, too.

Adults are responsible for providing for their children, and to deny students school lunch is to not uphold that responsibility. LD 1684 — the so-called Food Shaming bill — addresses that issue.

Research repeatedly shows that children are better able to learn when they eat a healthy diet. Proper nutrition in school food service programs can help students from lower socio-economic families reach their full academic potential, which, in turn, will allow them to reach their full vocational potential. When we devalue the meals offered by only providing them to the students without bills, we send the message that it is not the nutrition that is important, but the payment.

Providing children with proper nutrition from a young age helps encourage a lifetime of healthy eating, which has impacts on future generations. Through proper nutrition, obesity and other chronic health diseases can be prevented — which means longer, healthier lives with less sick time, all of which benefits the community as a whole. It is our responsibility to ensure that all school children reach their full potential. Allowing food shaming practices in our schools discourages the very kids who need access to healthy diets from participating in the program.

Students with school lunch bills don’t want them; if they could pay them themselves, they would. It is not their responsibility, however, to pay to have their basic needs met. That is an adult responsibility, even for teenagers who may be able to find jobs. If parents cannot pay the bill, then it is up to school officials to work with parents to solve the problem, not to send kids away hungry or eating a cheaper meal than the rest of the students.

Food impacts schools and the people who attend them, regardless of gender or location; it affects students’ health and academic achievement; it affects the adults who are working to help those students, both at the local level and through policy; it affects the community through the business connections; and it affects the environment. There is stigma connected both to the individual students who qualify for subsidized meals as well as to communities housing multiple qualifying families that is highlighted through how food is accessed. Creating a new category of stigma within an already stigmatized environment is unacceptable.

It is encouraging that Sen. Joyce Maker and nine of her fellow legislators from across the state want to end food shaming in Maine.

Maine students deserve full access to healthy meals. More importantly, they deserve those meals without shame.

As a public school teacher, I strongly encourage passing LD 1684 and ending food shaming practices in Maine, permanently.

Rachel Buck teaches alternative education at Dirigo High School in Dixfield. She is also pursuing her master’s degree in social work through the University of Maine. She lives in Peru.

Rachel Buck

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