OKLAHOMA CITY — Attempting to increase participation in free lunch programs, a Tulsa lawmaker is championing legislation that she said would prohibit school employees from shaming children who can’t afford lunch.

State Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman, D-Tulsa, said her measure forbids schools from publicly identifying or punishing students who cannot pay for their meals.

She said parents already have the right to tell schools not to feed their children, and she’s not trying to change that. But she wants to ensure that schools have no other excuse to withhold food.

“Unless it’s been put out there explicitly that you’re denying this child food, schools can’t take it upon themselves that we’re not giving kids cold cheese sandwiches,” Ikley-Freeman said. “That we’re not making them throw away meals. You know, that shame and blame sort of stuff.”

The legislation requires schools toverify every student’s eligibility for free or reduced-price meal assistance. Schools must provide a meal application in every enrollment packet and work with families to ensure they understand the process.

The proposal also requires school administrators to reach out to families when a student’s lunch account accumulates more than $30 in debt. If that unpaid balance reaches $150, the school must refer the family to the Department of Human Services to see if the family qualifies for any benefit assistance, she said.

Some districts do better than others in explaining how low-income families are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, she said.

“(I want to) make sure that it’s happening across the board, and that kids aren’t falling through the cracks unintentionally,” she said.

The National School Lunch Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, offers nutritional meals for free or at a reduced cost to qualifying children. Participating districts receive cash subsidies and food for every meal served, according to the federal agency.

In 2016, nearly 30.4 million children participated nationwide, officials said.

During the 2017-18 school year, nearly 426,000 Oklahoma students — or 61.3 percent — participated in the program, according to state Department of Education statistics. Of those, more than 375,000 Oklahoma school children received free lunches.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said every district already works diligently to ensure that all eligible students are signed up for the lunch program.

Districts also work closely with parents of students struggling to pay for meals.

“(Schools) continue to feed students,” Hime said. “It’s not the student’s fault.”

He said the days of so-called “lunch-shaming” — or publicly embarrassing students who can’t afford meals — is a thing of the past in Oklahoma schools.

Still, Hime said it’s always worth having a conversation about the issue with legislators. Perhaps there are ways to improve the process further, he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.