After widely supported anti-“lunch shaming” legislation was killed by a group of far-right Republicans in the Texas House, the bill’s author says she’s continuing the fight through other means.
Representative Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, announced a private initiative Tuesday to protect schoolchildren who run out of money in their lunch accounts from public humiliation.
“It’s inconceivable that in schools all over Texas, children go through the cafeteria line, discover they have no money, and have their meal thrown in the trash,” said Giddings, the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. “Unfortunately, the bill designed to give those students some relief was derailed by a handful of legislators.”
According to child advocates, “lunch shaming” is widespread across the Lone Star State, where one in four kids lives in poverty.
The legislation, which Giddings originally filed, would have prohibited schools from publicly identifying students with negative balances. It also would have required districts to increase outreach to parents about outstanding debts and free or reduced-price meals.
The tea-party-aligned House Freedom Caucus first derailed that legislation on May 9, prompting an emotional plea from Giddings on the House floor. Lawmakers from both parties, including Representative Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, and Senator Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, responded by amending the language on to other bills.
But on the House floor Friday night, Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, raised a point of order — a procedural weapon to kill bills on technicalities. Stickland successfully claimed the “lunch-shaming” measure was insufficiently related to the original bill, Senate Bill 725, which would let schools stock on-site food pantries with food that would otherwise go to waste. The move, which prompted loud booing from House members on the floor, caused the measure to be stripped from the bill.
Stickland and other members of the Freedom Caucus objected to the “lunch shaming” legislation as a “mandate” that would cost districts money. The vast majority of districts have unpaid lunch debts and often have to dip into other revenue to cover the costs.
Giddings told the Observer, “I would not dignify [the Freedom Caucus’] action with a response; what I would say is, to quote Maya Angelou: ‘When people show you who they are, you need to believe them.’”
When the Observer asked Stickland to comment, he responded, “No, y’all write trash articles.”
Stickland’s point of order could have sunk the entire bill, so Bernal agreed to strip the “lunch shaming” language and the original food pantry bill passed unanimously. The next day, Bernal successfully added a much more limited amendment that would give schools express permission to provide free meals to students who are unable to purchase them.
“I just want to make sure for the body that they understand this is now permissive,” said Stickland, who voted for the amendment. “It is not a mandate, and we moved it from a ‘shall’ to a ‘may.'”
At the Tuesday press conference, Giddings announced a collaboration with Feeding Texas, the state association of food banks. Feeding Texas has launched a webpage to collect donations to help pay off school lunch debts and encourage schools to adopt more generous meal policies — like those proposed in Giddings’ legislation.
“Our food banks serve about one million kids every year; those kids live on the verge of hunger every day,” said Celia Cole, the CEO of Feeding Texas. “We hope that by marrying the outpouring of public support with schools that want to do the right thing, we can erase school debt and end lunch shaming in Texas.”
Giddings told the Observer her legislation “absolutely” would have passed had it reached the House floor in any form.
An identical House version of SB 725 was scheduled for a Senate vote, but the bill’s sponsor, Senator Borris Miles, D-Houston, no longer plans to bring it to the floor after its companion was killed on a technicality, according to spokesperson Justin Concepcion.
A third and final bill, which contains the “lunch shaming” measure thanks to an amendment from GOP Senator Taylor, lingered in the House Committee on Public Education beyond a do-or-die weekend deadline.
“I’m disappointed that somehow, in the midst of our philosophical, political debates, we think that taking food away from kids and not solving their issue of hunger is a win,” said Bernal on the House floor Friday. “That is beyond me.”