In New Mexico, It’s Back To School But Not Back To ‘Lunch Shaming’

By Leila A. McNeill

In April, Desert Cove Elementary School in Phoenix, Arizona, made headlines for stamping a boy’s wrist in black ink with the words “lunch money” in all caps. The student had an outstanding balance on his lunch account, and though he was still given a hot lunch, he was humiliated in front of his peers. The boy’s mother said he was so humiliated that he didn’t even want a picture of the stamp taken. The student is one of many across the United States who has been subject to lunch shaming.

Schools utilize lunch shaming strategies on students to collect delinquent lunch bills. In addition to the incident in Arizona, other shaming practices include throwing away food instead of allowing the child to eat it, separating children into different lunch lines depending on what children are able to pay, or making children work off parents’ debts by cleaning up the lunchroom after their peers. These practices embarrass poor children in an attempt to force parents to pay outstanding lunch bills, but New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act will end shaming tactics across the state.

Written and introduced by Senator Michael Padilla, the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, which became law in April, ensures that all children in New Mexico will have access to the same food and be put into the same lunch line, no matter a student’s ability to pay upon checkout. The law also requires that schools assist students and their families in filling out the National School Lunch Program application for free or reduced lunch.

As a child, Padilla experienced a form of lunch shaming firsthand. “When I was a child, I grew up in foster homes and the All-Faiths Receiving Home for Homeless Children,” he says. Padilla and his sisters cleaned the lunchrooms, mopping the floors and cleaning the tables. And despite their work, they were only given for lunch what was left over after the other students had eaten. As a child, Padilla says, “I didn’t really see it as shaming. I didn’t know what shaming was. I just knew that I was very different.”

Bills like Padilla’s have been introduced because the National School Lunch Program does not seem to have any concrete means to deal with unpaid lunch bills that is fair to both the child and the school.

The Food and Nutrition Service guidelines for dealing with delinquent meal charges advise against tactics that could negatively affect students. While this clause cautions against directly shaming children in the lunchroom, there are no federal laws against it, so children are left with little to no recourse when they are subject to shaming.

For Padilla, ending lunch shaming in New Mexico is also a way to chip away at the long-standing poverty in the state. Looking forward, Padilla believes that if children can concentrate on their schoolwork, instead of their hungry stomachs, they will be able to succeed in school; this will, in turn, increase the graduation rate and grow and improve the workforce, he says.

Padilla’s bill has set a precedent across the U.S., and other representatives are looking to implement similar legislation in their states and districts. “Twenty-one other states, either a representative or the senator has reached out to me, and I’ve shared the bill with them. Individually, state by state, the bill is being crafted to work within infrastructure and government,” says Padilla. One representative inspired by Padilla was Rep. Helen Giddings of DeSoto, Texas, who brought House Bill 2159 to the Texas House; it would have ensured that children would still receive regular hot lunches while their debts were being collected. (The bill ultimately failed to pass.) In Oregon, a bill to end the practice of lunch shaming became one step closer to law when it passed the state senate last month.

Private citizens are also stepping up in order to help children and families who cannot pay their delinquent lunch debts. Chris Robinson is crowdfunding school lunches in Texas’ Fort Bend School District, and Jeff Lew of Seattle raised over $48,000 for his son’s district. But with more and more politicians taking notice of the success of Padilla’s bill, hopefully crowdfunding school lunches will no longer be necessary. Padilla says the New Mexico Congressional delegation is taking an active interest in ending lunch shaming on the national level. “Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senator Martin Heinrich, and Senator Tom Udall drafted a bill and introduced it on the federal level [in May],” says Padilla.

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Leila McNeill is a freelance writer, editor, and historian of science with a background on women and gender in science, technology, and medicine. She has written for The Atlantic, The Establishment and Aeon, and she is a regular beat writer for Smithsonian.com. Contact her on Twitter or visit her website.

Photo: iStock Photography 

Copyright © 500 Pens. August 2017.