Maine Department of Education is offering guidance to schools following the passage of legislation to prevent food shaming.

The bill, LD 167, was sponsored by Rep. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast, a former teacher, and signed into law by the governor. It prevents schools from withholding or substituting food if a student has an unpaid bill, as well as preventing school districts from denying food as a disciplinary action. The law applies to all grade levels of public schools. Private schools are excluded.

Waldo County has a high number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch programs, which are federally funded with income-based qualifications.

Maine DOE focuses on school districts not openly identifying or stigmatizing students with meal debt. For example, if a graduating senior has an overdue meal balance, a district may not prevent that student from participating in activities or withhold caps, gowns or graduation tickets. However, if there are other debts owed, a district still may be allowed to prevent that student from participating in graduation activities, according to Maine DOE.

“If the prohibition is potentially based on one of a list of factors (owed books, uniforms, other debt) including a meal debt, it might not constitute identifying or stigmatizing a student, since there are multiple reasons for which a student is denied,” the department recommends. “School administrative units are encouraged to consult with legal counsel about their specific policies.”

Numerous questions about communicating with students — who are minors — about meal debt are addressed by Maine DOE. It is recommended that school employees contact parents about the meal debt, but if a student asks for a balance, an employee can answer. Those with low balances may be told because there is still money in the account, Maine DOE advises.

Schools are no longer allowed to provide an alternative meal to students with meal debt.

A la carte items do not fall under the new law and may be denied if a student does not have a positive meal account balance.

Maine DOE states each public school should follow its policy or procedure for collecting payments from families. Outstanding debts may be sent to a collection agency. If a student has moved or graduated with a meal debt, it is considered uncollectable and each school district must assume responsibility — no federal funds may be used to cover the debt. The bill was passed as an unfunded mandate, which means school districts will have to rely on local funding to pay outstanding meal debt.