When a child can't afford their school lunch, the situation can get difficult. Kids across the country have been subjected to various forms of "lunch-shaming," even though it's their parents' fault that they might be behind on school lunch payments.
Lunch-shaming has become a form of humiliation for kids who cannot afford school lunches. According to The New York Times, some schools force children to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers to pay the debt, while other schools require cafeteria workers to take the child's food and throw it in the trash if they don't have the money to pay for it. In a particularly insensitive act, a child in Alabama was stamped on the arm with "I need lunch money" after being short on funds for lunch.
Now, one state has come out in a big way against this practice. In what supporters are saying is the first of this type of legislation across the country, the state of New Mexico has outlawed shaming children whose parents are behind on school lunch payments.
Governor Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights on April 6, which puts an end to the lunch-shaming practices that embarrass children and end up unfairly targeting low-income families. Instead, it directs schools to work with parents in order to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance. The bill applies to any public, private or religious school that also receives federal subsidies for students' breakfasts and lunches.
Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, an anti-poverty group that spearheaded the law, has long been critical of the lunch-shaming practices.
"People on both sides of the aisle were genuinely horrified that schools were allowed to throw out children’s food or make them work to pay off debt," she told The New York Times. "It sounds like some scene from 'Little Orphan Annie,' but it happens every day."
Being a poor kid at school can be internally shameful enough as it is, without introducing these practices of having to wear a wristband, being required to perform chores or (even worse) having hot food thrown out right in front of your face.
New Mexico State Sen. Michael Padilla, who grew up in foster homes and experienced shaming tactics as a child, said he introduced the bill because of his harrowing experience growing up.
"I made Mrs. Ortiz and Mrs. Jackson, our school lunch ladies, my best friends," he said. "Thank goodness they took care of me, but I had to do other things like mop the floor in the cafeteria. It was really noticeable that I was one of the poor kids in the school."
Unfortunately, this is not the only state with students facing school meal debt. The School Nutrition Association reports that more than three-quarters of school districts faced uncollected debt for lunch programs at the end of the last school year. In order to collect outstanding balances, many districts use automated calls, texts or emails, but they may also hire an outside collection agency—not to mention the shaming and other practices that penalize students just because the parents haven't paid up.
In the case of New Mexico, the new law will still allow schools to penalize students in other ways, such as withholding a transcript or revoking parking passes for older students.
However, Ms. Ramo, whose group worked closely with school nutrition departments in drafting the bill, believes that the intention of the school meal debt policies was never to humiliate kids—even though that was the end result.
"Mostly, school nutrition directors are trying to balance their budgets and they see this is a necessary but effective evil," she told The Times.
Although these policies are still prevalent across the United States, such as a Pittsburgh-area cafeteria worker who made national news after quitting her job instead of denying hot lunches to students, New Mexico's new policy may be the start of turning around the horrid practice of shaming kids who can't afford lunch.