AUSTIN (KXAN) — A newly filed bill in the Texas State House would ban debt accrued from school lunches for students in Texas.

On Wednesday, Texas state Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock) filed House Bill 4112, which would allow students to receive regular lunches despite what their meal card balance may be.

“In the richest country in the world, children are accumulating debt. We are shaming kids, because they can’t afford their school lunch and conditioning them for a lifetime of indebtedness,” said Talarico. “School meals are essential to a student’s physical health and academic success. I filed HB 4112 to ban school lunch debt in Texas, because no one should be in debt before first grade.”

Currently, children from families with incomes at or below 130% of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, according to the School Nutrition Association. Meanwhile, those with incomes between 130% and 185% can receive reduced-price meals.

SNA indicates 130% of the poverty level is a household income of $34,060 for a family of four and 185% is $48,470 for a family of four. The association’s most recent meal price averages show elementary to high school lunches range around $2.60, and breakfasts range around $1.50.

Nevertheless, thousands still struggle.

Nationally, there has been a rise in advocacy for the issue in recent years — prompting many across the country to pay off outstanding debts, including an Austin eighth-grader who paid $9,000 from a GoFundMe campaign toward Austin ISD’s nearly $19,000 in school lunch debt.

Round Rock ISD said it currently has $22,397.32 in school lunch debt. That number was even higher last school year, at $27,386.77. The district said that may be because the school year was disrupted, and it was harder to track down and collect outstanding balances.

“It’s important to note that we do everything we can to encourage families who qualify to sign up for the federal free and reduced lunch program so that paying for breakfast and lunch is not a burden,” said spokesperson Jenny Caputo.

Hays CISD said it is able to give free meals to all students this year thanks to federal COVID-19 funding, but usually sees about $8,000 to $13,000 in annual school lunch debt.

The district said it zeroes out all lunch accounts each year using donations and dipping into its general fund.

“It shouldn’t have to come to that. Everybody should be able to receive a free breakfast and free lunch if they attend a public school,” said board member Esperanza Orosco, who also co-founded Hays Hope 2 Go, a free food program.

“I think this is really important to help families have one less thing that they have to worry about, one less barrier that they don’t have to address.”

Georgetown ISD said student meal debt is currently under $100, thanks in part to an anonymous donor who paid off all student meal balances, more than $8,500, near the end of the fall semester.

But experts said this isn’t a permanent solution to the problem for thousands of families.

Currently, USDA regulations allow school districts to decide how to manage unpaid meal balances. Alternatives have included limiting the number of charges allowed and providing lower cost, typically cold, alternative meals.

‘Lunch shaming’

The concept of giving students with unpaid balances alternative, cheaper meals has been widely criticized, with detractors claiming it encourages “lunch shaming,” or identifying students who have unpaid balances and aren’t able to get regular meals.

Ways of identification used in the past include wristbands, different-colored lunch cards, and the previously mentioned alternate meals.

In 2019, U.S. Senator Tina Smith and Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced the No Shame at School Act, which would prohibit shaming practices. It would also require schools to certify unpaid meal balances and forbid them from using debt collectors to receive payment.

Several states have laws in place against shaming practices, including New Mexico, California, Oregon and Iowa. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill in 2017 creating a grace period for students with unpaid balances.