Ending the National Problem of “Lunch Shaming” – in New Mexico and Across the US

May 12th, 2017 | by RON BELL

Ending the National Problem of “Lunch Shaming” – in New Mexico and Across the US

While the practice is alarming and widespread, recent legislation in New Mexico shows the way to end it

Tenacious problem, tasteless solution

In recent years, school nutrition has been arguably a challenging subject for school administrators across the country. Districts are expected to introduce and maintain healthier lunch choices and make an effort to be creative about in order to increase student lunch participation. School cafeterias are also striving to offer more ethnic food options in order for the menus to be more inclusive and tailored to students’ tastes. Interestingly, according to the “State of School Nutrition Report 2014”, conducted by the School Nutrition Association on a representative sample of more than 1,102 school nutrition directors, school districts across the US made a visible progress in many of those areas. Nevertheless, the report also found that there seems to be a persistent problem the majority of schools in the country are struggling to solve – student-meal debt. According to the survey, at the end of the 2012-2013 school year, almost 71% of districts reported having to grapple with that problem, with the collective debts for students’ past-dues ranging from $2 to $4.7 million depending on the size of the jurisdiction. The means that schools are using to tackle that issue, however, often leaves the students embarrassed and their parents perplexed. Why? Because one of the methods employed by school cafeterias to curb the problem of delinquent school meal accounts is a practice that has come to be known as “lunch shaming”. 

A cheese sandwich stigma

The term refers to various practices that stigmatize children who are in debt over past unpaid meals. For example, it has been reported that one school in Alabama stamps “I need lunch money” on arms of children who have a negative balance on their lunch accounts. Obviously distressed, one of the parents whose child was subjected to such a marking called it a form of “bullying”. Another form of lunch shaming is throwing a hot lunch in the trash when it is discovered that the student’s account is past due – and all of it happens in front of the student’s peers who are waiting in line behind them. This practice sparked considerable outrage from the parents of pupils of one elementary school in Bedford, KY. In this case as well, parents did not shy away from using the word “bullying” to denounce the incidents. In 2014, almost 40 students from an elementary school in Salt Lake City were subjected to similar treatment which has been described as “traumatic and humiliating for them”. Some other schools, although not resorting to such humiliating practices, offer their students a “less desirable alternative”, like a cheese sandwich, if their account is delinquent. Although seemingly less offensive or embarrassing, it is a visible distinction that children have found distressing and stigmatizing. Sadly, according to one report from 2014, these practices are common and happen nationwide – 45% of all school districts deny hot meals and offer a cold alternative in case of past-due school lunch accounts, while 3% give no food whatsoever in such circumstances.

New Mexico paves the way

Of course, the student meal debt can be a serious challenge for a school’s budget. But does it justify arguably humiliating and dignity-depriving practices targeting children who, in most cases, have no real capacity to change their situation? New legislation adopted recently by the state of New Mexico answers this question with an unambiguous and definitive no. On Thursday, April 4, Governor Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights which outlaws practices, such as those described above, which publicly stigmatize students with delinquent lunch-meal accounts. Under the new law, the schools in New Mexico are prohibited to publicly identify or stigmatize a student who cannot pay for a meal or who owes a meal debt by, for example, requiring that a student wears a wristband or hand stamp. Apart from that, requiring an indebted student to do chores or perform work in order to repay their past-dues has been likewise identified as a discriminatory practice and thus outlawed. Moreover, uncollectable dues must be written-off. Federal funds will not be made available to cancel out the schools resulting debt, rather they will need to turn to their school district or find new sources of revenue on their own. The schools’ administrators do retain the right to use non-public incentives and debt-collecting measures. For example, a student with delinquent accounts may have their transcripts revoked or, in the case of pupils who own a car, their parking passes may be canceled.

The legislation has been called the first of its kind in the country but other states are following suit. For example, The New York Times reported that steps to curb lunch shaming were taken by the Houston Independent School District and that both Minnesota and the San Francisco Unified School District also adopted anti-shaming measures. According to NPR, Sen. Michael Padilla, who co-authored the New Mexico bill, has already communicated with senators from other states who were contemplating using the bill as a model to be adopted in their constituencies. Padilla also expressed hope that the legislation will ‘make its way across the country’. If it does happen, it will surely be a change welcomed by both parents of schoolchildren and the pupils themselves.  


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