Legislature fails to pass Hunger-Free Students Act

A bill was presented to the Tennessee Legislature K-12 education subcommittee on March 6 that would prevent students from being penalized for having unresolved school lunch accounts, including having their meals thrown in the trash after being served.

The bill was voted down.

Sponsored by District 55 State Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville), the bill was written in response to national stories of kids being stigmatized publicly in the cafeteria for having a negative balance.

The bill, dubbed the Tennessee Hunger-Free Students Act, would have mandated that school administration make every possible effort to get the child enrolled in the free/reduced lunch program if they qualify.

The bill also prohibits a school from publicly calling a student out or stigmatizing them because of not being able to pay for a meal, or requiring the student to do chores or other work to pay for the meals.

A meal debt couldn’t keep them from graduating or penalizing them in other ways. The child would not have been allowed to be held personally responsible for their parent or guardian’s inability to pay.

The school also wouldn’t be able to send collections agencies out for meal debts.

State Rep. John Ragan, who represents parts of Oak Ridge and Anderson County, is the chair of the subcommittee and was one of four who voted no. Two members of the committee voted yes.

Why vote no?

According to Ragan, his vote would not have changed the outcome.

Although he said he was in favor of the bill, and that Clemmons did a good job presenting it, he didn’t want to split the vote as chairperson.

“Among committee members, there was concern about how local school boards would be able to recoup any money,” he explained.

“Had it passed as it was, it would have been an unfunded mandate from the state.”

It wasn’t that he and the others who voted ‘no’ were against the bill, Ragan said.

“It was just unfunded,” he said. “That sponsor [Clemmons], I don’t agree with a lot, but I did agree with that one. This bill had some really good parts to it.”

But no money going back to the schools to make up the fiscal difference killed it for him. Ragan believes, however, that the bill will come back up in a different form again, hopefully with funding behind it the next time.

There are multiple ways to fund a similar bill, according to Ragan.

One way is to empower local school boards and county commissions or city councils to set up a fund to cover unpaid accounts.

It can also be a part of the state’s budget, but that’s more challenging. Another way is nongovernmental, which is what happened when a bill passed to bring defibulators to all 1,800 schools. Those were provided by community sponsors and donations.

“So it can be done,” he said. “This bill didn’t offer any of those options.”

What was in the bill?

The bill would have provided guidelines for schools offering or providing free or reduced fee meals to students.

The following guidelines were proposed, per the Tennessee General Assembly’s website, along with the ones listed above:

• Schools should provide a free, paper meal application, or instructions for parents and guardians on how to submit an electronic meal application or request a paper meal application at no cost.

• If a school knows a child is eligible but their parent or guardian hasn’t filled out an application, the school should fill out an application for them.

• All homeless students should receive free school meals pursuant to federal law.

• A school should provide a United States department of agriculture reimbursable meal to a student who requests one, unless the student’s parent or guardian has specifically provided written direction to the school to withhold a meal.

• The school also should not require that a student throw away a meal after it has been served because of the student’s inability to pay for the meal or because the student owes a meal debt.