North Dakota House OKs watered-down bill to ban ‘lunch shaming’ in schools

Democratic Rep. Zac Ista said his bill aims to protect children from “harmful stigmatization if they cannot afford a school meal.”

A child holds a full lunch tray in a bustling lunch room.
Fargo Roosevelt Elementary students grab lunch in the school cafeteria on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023.
David Samson / The Forum

BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers have advanced a bill to prevent schools from withholding meals to students with modest lunch debts. Meanwhile, a Republican-led committee stripped down a separate proposal to provide free lunches to all K-12 students in the state.

The North Dakota House of Representatives voted 89-1 on Monday, Feb. 13, to approve House Bill 1494, which supporters say will curb “lunch shaming” of school children. Rep. Scott Dyk, R-Williston, was the lone vote in opposition. The legislation will head to the Senate.

The bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Zac Ista, D-Grand Forks, originally sought to bar schools from denying lunches to all students with unpaid meal balances. The House Education Committee amended the bill so it would only prohibit schools from withholding lunches if students’ meal debt is less than a week old.

The legislation also would forbid schools from:

  • Publicly identifying students who fail to pay meal debt or who receive free or reduced-price lunches. 
  • Blocking students’ participation in school activities, field trips, sports or graduation ceremonies due to unpaid meal balances. 
  • Requiring students to perform work, like cleaning duties, to make up for meal debt.
  • Using a collections agency to go after students’ meal debt. 

A federal program provides free and reduced-priced meals to low-income students, but Ista said families that don’t qualify may still struggle to pay for their children’s lunches. The Democratic lawmaker told the committee last month that his bill aims to protect children from “harmful stigmatization if they cannot afford a school meal.”


“No child should have to suffer such an embarrassment at school, especially on account of something they cannot control like their family’s income,” Ista said.

The proposal garnered support from a handful of education and social service organizations, including the teachers’ union North Dakota United.

The House passed the bill Monday without any discussion.

The Democratic-backed House Bill 1491 has faced a harsher reception from Republican lawmakers due to its high price tag.

In its original form, the bill would have used $89.5 million in state funds to provide free lunches to all K-12 students for the next two school years.

The House Education Committee’s amendment to the bill shrinks the state spending to $6 million and limits the free lunches program to students whose family income is less than twice the federal poverty level.

Families of four with incomes at or below $60,000 would qualify for the proposed free lunch program in North Dakota, according to current poverty level income figures.

A federal program already provides free meals to students from families making below 130% of the federal poverty level.


The House Appropriations will hold a hearing for the diluted HB 1491 at 9:15 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 15. The legislation will go to a vote of the entire House after budget writers consider it.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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