New state law prohibits schools from suing parents, guardians for unpaid meal fees

New York State

(News 8 WROC file photo)

ALBANY, N.Y. (WROC) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Thursday that prohibits schools and school districts from filing any type of lawsuit against parents or guardians for unpaid meal fees.

Officials from the governor’s office say the new law builds on measures from the “No Student Goes Hungry” program and helps protect students and families from legal tactics related to their inability to make payments for school meals.  

“Taking families to court over unpaid school meals is cruel, draconian, and runs counter to a school’s fundamental mission to ensure the wellbeing of every student,” Gov. Cuomo said in a Thursday press release. “This legislation builds upon this administration’s work to end lunch shaming in New York and makes it clear that no family in need should have to endure a burdensome and costly legal process over their children’s nutritional health.”

In 2018, New York State took action to end “meal shaming” of students in public schools, so that students who may have unpaid school meal fees do not get treated differently than their peers. Since 2018, there have been prominent cases across the country of school districts threatening to file lawsuits or take the families of students with unpaid meal fees to court to collect fees.

While infrequent, these incidents are counterproductive to the goal of ending meal shaming and this legislation provides additional protection for students and families who might otherwise be made to choose between going to court or going hungry.

Officials from the governor’s office say this action will also work in concert with the federal government’s commitment to ensuring that students in the United States receive the vital meals they need to learn and thrive. 

As part of the recovery from the COVID pandemic, the United States Department of Agriculture has announced that school meals provided through the National School Lunch Program will be provided free of charge to all students through June 2022.

“New Yorkers recognize that no child should go to school and worry about being shamed or stigmatized because they can’t afford lunch,” said State Sen. Rachel May in a press release. “Our laws are among the most progressive in the country in prohibiting meal shaming. But as we have seen in neighboring states, it is possible for meal shaming to walk out of the classroom and into the courtroom. This law will keep such lawsuits from making their way to New York. I am grateful to the Governor for signing it today, and I look forward to working with my colleagues in next year’s budget to help schools ensure every single child eats at school without incurring debt.”

“Across the country, families are being publicly shamed and sued by schools over unpaid debt caused by nothing more than their children eating a meal,” said Anna Kelles in a press release. “This law will prevent that in New York State. There are other ways to support our schools but shaming children is not one that we as New Yorkers can support. School is and should always be about education and growth.  I want to thank the governor for signing this law and standing with our children and their families.”

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