New Mexico is the first state in the United States to make it expressly illegal to single out or humiliate a child who cannot pay for his or her lunch at school.
Gov. Susana Martinez (R) signed The Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights into law on Thursday, The New York Times reports. The bill is aimed at ending the practice of “lunch shaming.” It also outlines procedures for schools to collect debts and helps families in signing up for federal free or reduced-price meal assistance.
Advocates for children say tactics that stigmatize students with lunch debts are disturbingly common. This includes throwing kids’ lunches away if they can’t pay; making students clean the cafeteria; or requiring that they wear stickers, stamps or wrist bands that indicate they can’t pay.
“Children whose parents or caregivers owe money for school lunch will no longer have to miss meals or face public embarrassment in front of their peers,” Jennifer Ramo of New Mexico Appleseed, a group that works to fight poverty, said in a March statement supporting the bill. “No child should be forced to wipe down cafeteria tables or throw away a meal because of a debt.”
In Pennsylvania, a cafeteria worker says she was ordered to throw away a hot lunch that she had already served to a first grader and give him a plain cheese sandwich instead (though the school denied her account of what happened.) In Utah, dozens of elementary school children had to watch their lunches thrown away because they owed money — but cafeteria staff couldn’t check the kids’ balances until after they had served them. Those kids then got milk and fruit as a replacement.
And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a policy to give kids without lunch money cold cheese sandwiches and fruit partially backfired as some families began to see the sandwiches as punishment for being poor. Families whose received such a meal included those who were in the process of applying for free or reduced-price federal lunch assistance, The Denver Post reported in 2009.
The Times points out that schools feel pressure to collect debts — which can run up to millions of dollars in some districts - because schools can’t use federal funds to offset the costs, meaning they have to find the money elsewhere. But supporters of the bill believe it’s crucial to conduct any debt collection with as little shame for the children involved as possible.
Even without added stigma, some students already feel ashamed of being hungry. Oregon teacher Gibson Howton, whose Facebook post about providing snacks to her students went viral last month, said that’s why she freely offers food to kids in her classroom.
“Feeling hungry feels scary,” she told HuffPost in March. “If satisfying their stomach makes them feel less afraid, less anxious, more cared for ... everything else becomes easier.”