Letter to Hon. Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture - Prohibit Lunch Shaming of Students


Dear Secretary Vilsack,

We appreciate the efforts made by the USDA to address the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 public health emergency, including issuing several nationwide waivers and flexibilities. We recognize schools will continue to have the option to serve free meals to all students through June 2022 via the Seamless Summer Option. However, as districts transition off the waiver, there is urgent need to address unpaid meal charges through updated guidance by Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). We write to ask the FNS employ its existing authority to prohibit lunch shaming of students with school meal debts.

Despite some successful local and national efforts to ban the practice, the FNS still permits LEAs to engage in a variety of pernicious practices in an attempt to collect families' meal debt. These efforts are clearly unethical and disproportionately impact students of color. Examples include preventing youth from graduating or participating in extracurricular activities, and selling a family's meal debt to a collection agency, which increases the debt and harms the family's credit, exacerbating the economic insecurity of already struggling families.

FNS has not updated guidance on this issue since 2017. Congress specifically directed the Secretary to "provide additional guidance to program operators to address the ongoing issue of shaming school children for unpaid school lunch fees" in the FY2020 report to accompany the Agriculture Appropriations Bill and again in the FY 2021 report.

It is not enough to encourage LEAs to communicate respectfully, discourage them from stigmatizing children, or provide additional payment options. FNS should issue guidance that would ban punitive measures on students, prohibit billing children, and require notifications to be provided in multiple languages. FNS should also issue guidance prohibiting LEAs and collection agencies from charging any interest and/or fees in addition to the original debt, and require LEAs to use the maximum timeframe for eligibility in establishing the effective date of eligibility for family certification and participation in the free or reduced meals program.

In May of this year when questioned by Congresswoman Leger Fernández about the USDA policies regarding lunch shaming during a hearing before the House Committee on Education and Labor, Deputy Under Secretary Stacy Dean stated that "Children should not be put in the middle of this problem, and that's just unacceptable, and we need to see if there's a way that we can develop a framework so that districts just don't do that." We believe that the changes outlined in this letter provide such a framework to limit accrual of meal debt, improve the collection of unpaid meal charges, and reduce lunch shaming and child hunger.

We look forward to a timely response from your agency how you plan to move forward with these changes.