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Local

Striking down hunger: Legislation aims to keep students fed

The governor recently signed legislation requiring schools to serve lunches to all students, regardless of their ability to pay, and area superintendents are all on board with the change.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 2428 earlier this week that created the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, an effort to ensure children are well-fed and ready to learn without the embarrassment of owing money for food.

It’s effective immediately, and it prohibits schools from publicly identifying or stigmatizing students who cannot pay for meals or snacks, known as “lunch shaming,” such as sending the student off with debt reminders with a stamp or wrist band.

Students will have access to a federally reimbursable meal or snack, and if the school district is owed more than $500 by a student’s parents and it has made a reasonable effort to collect the debt for at least a year, the district can request the Illinois comptroller withhold tax refunds of parents to pay off the debt, according to the legislation.

The three larger districts in the Sauk Valley have an average 55.8 percent of students on free and/or reduced lunch programs, with the Sterling School District at 62 percent, Dixon School District at 52.5 percent and Rock Falls High School at 53 percent.

Sterling has floated the idea of providing a free lunch regardless of financial ability, long before the bill was passed, Superintendent Tad Everett said.

“First, we want to look at financial feasibility before going ahead with any plans,” he said.

For example, with the free and or reduced lunch being extended to any student, Sterling High School might have to look into changing the flow of the cafeteria to accommodate the increased traffic.

“There may be some financial impact in the form of adding another serving station to get them in and out of lunch within the half an hour,” Everett said.

Overall, Everett said the legislation is a step in the right direction.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for them to have a lunch,” he said. “Nutrition is a big part of overall wellness, and if students are hungry, they won’t be good learners.”

All three districts echo the same message: nutritional well being is the highest priority.

“Dixon has always operated on the importance on making sure students have a balanced meal,” Superintendent Margo Empen said. “The students’ bodies and brains have to be ready to tackle the day ahead of them.”

Rock Falls High School Superintendent Ron McCord agrees.

“It is important that students get the nutrition they need; we don’t want them to be hungry,” he said.

The bill still allows for schools to recover money from families that owe meals, and they can start after five meals or whatever threshold is set by the district.

Schools can also request that parents or guardians apply for meal benefits in a federal or state child nutrition program.

“We’ve let parents charge up to three meals, then we reach out to parents and make sure they are aware of the resources available to them if they do fall on financial hardship,” Empen said.

Additionally, the bill moves that schools cannot publicly identify or stigmatize a student who cannot pay for a meal or snack or who owes money for a meal or snack.

Empen said students use their ID card to pay for lunch, whether they pay or receive free lunch, so there’s no lunch shaming.

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