State Outlaws Lunch Shaming Because Schools Won’t Stop Being Jerks To Kids

by Mike Julianelle
Originally Published: 
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Schools in New Mexico can no longer punish students for lunch debts

New Mexico is the first state in the country to actually legislate against the practice of shaming children for having late or unpaid cafeteria bills.

This is necessary, because somehow, shaming children has become a trend.

The New York Times has the story on New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which was signed into law by Governor Susana Martinez on Thursday. It’s the first such bill in the country designed to combat “lunch shaming.”

The bill applies to all schools in the state that receive federal subsidies for students’ breakfasts and lunches, including public, private, and religious schools. It aims to end the practice of embarrassing students by making schools work with their parents to pay lunch debts, or to help them attain federal meal assistance.

There has been a recent rash of stories about lunch shaming, in which students are being punished and humiliated for having outstanding debts. Some schools use stamps, including an Alabama school that used one on a third graders arm that reads “I Need Lunch Money,” and another that just shortened it to “Lunch Money” and stamps students when their accounts are low.

Others schools make students wear wrist bands, or do chores. Some cafeteria workers have even been forced to throw out hot meals rather than serve them to students without enough money. Under the bill, the school can still punish parents – by withholding transcripts or revoking the parking passes of older students.

Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, an anti-poverty group that spearheaded the law, explained some of the reasoning behind the bill. “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. It sounds like some scene from ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ but it happens every day.”

School meal debt isn’t a joke. The School Nutrition Association, reported that at the end of last year, three-quarters of school districts had uncollected debt. Most were a few thousand dollars, but some reached the millions. Something has to be done.

Still, targeting the kids, many of whom are in elementary school and in all likelihood have no idea what their school lunch ledger looks like, is just cruel. You would think administrators would know better and wouldn’t need the state legislature to literally make it illegal to humiliate students by broadcasting their debt and publicly depriving them of hot meals. But it’s 2017, and sadly, both common sense and common decency seem to be in short supply.

Hopefully other states will follow New Mexico’s lead, and we’ll begin to see fewer and fewer stories about kids who were shamed for something beyond their control. It’s just a tad depressing that such a law is needed at all.

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