The Massachusetts General Court recently passed Chapter 62 of the Acts of 2021, “An Act Promoting Student Nutrition” (the “Act”), which amends General Laws Chapter 71.
The Act contains a number of anti-lunch shaming provisions that specifically prohibit employees, agents, and volunteers of schools and/or school districts from:
- taking any action that would publicly identify a student who has not paid for a school meal;
- serving a student who has an unpaid meal debt an alternative meal that is not also available to all students at the cafeteria unless the alternative meal complies with mandates for a federally-reimbursable meal;
- denying a student a meal as a form of behavioral discipline or punishment;
- disposing of an already served meal because of the student’s lack of funds to pay for the meal or because of an unresolved meal debt;
- prohibiting a student or a sibling of a student from attending or participating in non-fee based extracurricular activities, field trips or school events solely because of the student’s unresolved meal debt;
- prohibiting a student from receiving grades, official transcripts, report cards or from graduating or attending graduation events solely because of unresolved meal debt; or
- requiring a parent or guardian to pay fees or costs in excess of the actual amounts owed for meals previously served to the student.
With regard to student meal debt, the Act requires superintendents or their designees to notify parents or guardians of their student’s unpaid meal debt. Within 30 days of doing so, the school district must determine if the student is eligible for free or reduced-price meals. During the 30-day period, the student may not be denied access to a school meal until the district has made a determination that the family is ineligible for free or reduced-price meals. DESE has been charged with establishing the protocol to notify a parent or guardian of a student’s unpaid meal debt.
The Act also expands students’ access to free school meals by requiring some school districts and individual schools to implement a free breakfast and lunch program for all students in the district or school. A school district or school with at least 60% of students who qualify as low income must elect and implement a universal free breakfast and lunch program for all students. A school district or individual school with at least 50% but less than 60% of students who qualify as low income must also elect and implement a free breakfast and lunch program for all of its students unless the school district elects otherwise by a vote of its school committee no later than June 1st of the first year of eligibility or DESE determines the school district or school no longer qualifies based on a change in enrollment of low income students. DESE may waive this requirement if the school district or school can demonstrate the program would result in a financial hardship.
School nutrition directors (or their designees) must attend at least one DESE training to learn about the eligibility requirements for the universal free breakfast and lunch program and other federal options that may be available to the district or school before the school committee votes whether to participate in the universal free meals program or seeks a waiver.
The Act further states that a school district that participates in the national school lunch program is required to take steps to maximize federal revenues and to minimize debt on families under a protocol determined by DESE promoting the certification of students for free school meal status.
If you have any questions about Chapter 62 of the Acts of 2021 or its potential effect on your school district or school, please contact a member of our Public Education Law Group.