On a Wednesday morning in February 2016, Kelvin Holt, an Army veteran and then-substitute teacher, led a group of about 20 pre-kindergarten students into a Central Texas school cafeteria.
As kids shuffled through the line, Holt noticed a 4-year-old Latina girl who’d started in the middle of the line, but slowly worked her way to the back. That seemed odd — but when she reached the cashier, he immediately understood.
With $1.50 worth of breakfast on her tray, the girl handed the cashier her lunch card. A moment later, according to Holt, the cashier said, “You have no money.”
The cashier then removed the unopened milk from the tray and threw the food away — in full view of the other students, Holt said. The girl walked off empty-handed and sat at the end of a long table, crying.
“I was in disbelief,” said Holt, who later learned the Killeen ISD student had dealt with this before. “It took me a while to even process what the heck had happened … it was heart-wrenching.”
In a statement, Killeen ISD spokesperson Shannon Rideout said the district “discreetly” takes meals from students with a negative balance and is developing a policy “to minimize trays being pulled at the register.”
The incident is an example of a phenomenon common across Texas and the nation: “lunch shaming.” In some cases, the “shaming” has included making kids clean tables, forcing them to wear wristbands or even stamping their arms.
Nationwide, except for a fraction of districts where all meals are free, every district has students who run out of prepaid food money. In Texas, districts allow a state-mandated grace period — a window that varies from a day to multiple weeks — to settle the debt before consequences kick in. If the debt remains, schools typically give the child an “alternative meal,” such as a cheese sandwich with juice, or nothing at all. And some engage in “shaming.”
The vast majority of districts had uncollected debt at the end of last school year, and often schools must dip into other revenue to cover those costs, according to the New York Times.
In the Lone Star State, one in four kids lives in poverty. That number jumps for Hispanic and black students to 33 and 32 percent, respectively — groups that together account for 65 percent of Texas’ public school students.
About two-thirds of Texas schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced-price meals, but not all eligible families are signed up, according to Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, the state association of food banks.
“In a nutshell, Texas schoolchildren are poor and they struggle, which is why the lunch program in schools is so important and why it’s so important to end lunch shaming,” Cole told the Observer.
Enter Representative Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto. In February, the 13-term lawmaker and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus filed House Bill 2159. The legislation would prohibit schools from publicly identifying students with negative balances. It would also require districts to increase outreach to parents about free and reduced-price meals and shift control of the length of grace periods from superintendents to school boards.
Giddings’ bill passed unanimously out of committee and was sitting comfortably on the Local and Consent Calendar, a fast-track for uncontroversial bills. But on May 9, five members of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus objected, calling it a “mandate” that would cost districts money. That move shifted the bill on to the regular calendar right before a do-or-die deadline, effectively killing it.
“To take the action that was taken on this floor today on this bill for hungry children was unconscionable,” said Giddings on the House floor that day. “Members, we can do better for our children. They deserve better. And I personally believe that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who harm our children.”
The video of Giddings’ speech went viral, and bipartisan momentum began building to save her proposal through other legislative means.
Representative Diego Bernal, a San Antonio Democrat who said he was inspired by Giddings’ speech, was already carrying a bill to let schools stock on-site food banks with healthy food that would otherwise go to waste. Within two days of the speech, Bernal added the entirety of Giddings’ bill on to both his House version and the Senate companion.
“I walked over to [Giddings] and she … looked at me and said, ‘I don’t care if it has my name on it; I just want this thing to pass to help these kids,’” said Bernal.
Bernal and Giddings were joined from the other side of the aisle by Senator Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood. Taylor added the legislation to SB 1696 on the Senate floor Tuesday through an unopposed amendment.
Giddings told the Observer she’s “very optimistic” a reincarnated version of her legislation will pass before the session concludes May 29, adding that her staff “isn’t going to stop there.” She said her office is looking to establish a private-sector initiative, whereby donors would help school districts recoup unpaid meal debts.
In April, New Mexico’s state legislature passed a bill banning “lunch shaming,” and at the federal level, U.S. Congress members have filed the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act. A new USDA rule requiring all schools to put their policy in writing goes into effect on July 1.
Holt, the teacher, started a petition the weekend after the incident he saw last February. Today, it has more than 113,000 signatures.