A new study says many Massachusetts school kids are being shamed and even threatened by school systems over unpaid meals. This is alarming.

According to The Boston Herald, The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a liberal anti-poverty group, looked at 154 Massachusetts schools last fall that do not offer universal free lunches, and says many use "meal shaming" practices for kids who can't afford lunch.

The institute says those practices include serving a sandwich in place of a hot meal, barring students from playing sports or going on field trips, and withholding report cards.

According to the Herald, some schools have policies that threaten to report families to the Department of Children and Families for failing to pay for school meals.

The study's author, Patricia Baker, tells The Boston Herald:

“Unpaid school meal debt is increasingly a common problem for school districts, for families and students throughout Massachusetts and the nation.

But policies that deny children a hot meal or punish them or their siblings for meal debt leads to bad educational outcomes for the Commonwealth as a whole and humiliation for these kids in particular.

Schools can do much more to feed students, reduce meal debt and communicate directly with parents.”

Baker is correct that shaming and using threats and intimidation on hungry kids is bad policy. But parents must be more responsive to the needs of their children by providing a lunch or lunch money for them when possible.

From experience, I know that kids will be kids, and do not always act in a responsible manner. They'll run up cafeteria debt if allowed to do so. However, business matters such as unpaid cafeteria debt should be addressed in private with the parents. In cases where providing a lunch or lunch money is beyond a family's ability, arrangements should be made to see that the child eats the same meal being offered to every other student.

My kids ran up debt without my knowledge, and we did receive bills from the school. But when did this practice of offering kids credit begin and why? Why is a school offering a kid credit without a parent's permission?

Editor's Note: Barry Richard is the afternoon host on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from noon-3 p.m. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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