New Mexico Outlaws School ‘Lunch Shaming’

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What is “lunch shaming?” It happens when a child can’t pay a school lunch bill.

In Alabama, a child short on funds was stamped on the arm with “I Need Lunch Money.” In some schools, children are forced to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers to pay the debt. Other schools require cafeteria workers to take a child’s hot food and throw it in the trash if he doesn’t have the money to pay for it.

In what its supporters say is the first such legislation in the country, New Mexico has outlawed shaming children whose parents are behind on school lunch payments.

On Thursday, Gov. Susana Martinez signed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance and puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children.

The law’s passage is a victory for anti-hunger activists, who have long been critical of lunch-shaming practices that single out children with insufficient funds on their electronic swipe cards or who lack the necessary cash. These practices can include making the child wear a wrist band or requiring the child to perform chores in exchange for a meal.

In some cases, cafeteria workers have been ordered to throw away the hot lunches of children who owed money, giving them alternatives like sandwiches, milk and fruit.

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

State Senator Michael Padilla, a Democrat and the majority whip, said he introduced the bill because he grew up in foster homes and experienced shaming tactics as a child.

“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.”

New Mexico ranks near last in the nation on many measures of child well-being, but the state isn’t alone in dealing with school meal debt. According to the School Nutrition Association, over three-quarters of school districts had uncollected debt on their books at the end of the last school year. In a survey by the association, districts reported median lunch debt of a few thousand dollars — but some were far higher, as much as $4.7 million.

Once debt is deemed uncollectable, school nutrition departments must write it off, but they may not offset the loss with federal dollars. Instead, they must dip into other forms of revenue, such as profits from the sale of full-priced snacks and meals, or they must seek reimbursement elsewhere, usually from the district’s general fund.

Most districts try to collect outstanding balances through automated calls, texts or emails, and they may also hire an outside collection agency. The New Mexico law will still allow schools to penalize students with steps such as withholding a student’s transcript or revoking older students’ parking passes.

Lunch shaming can take a toll on the adults enlisted to carry it out as well as on children. A Pittsburgh-area cafeteria worker made national news when she quit her job rather than deny hot lunches to students.

Some school employees reach into their own pockets to pay for meals. Sharon Schaefer, a former chef at a high school in Omaha, said one cashier asked to be removed from her position because of the school’s “no money, no meal” policy. “She had been secretly paying for students’ meals,” Ms. Schaefer said, “and couldn’t afford to keep it up.”

Even those outside the cafeteria may be moved to help. Private individuals have sometimes paid off the entire outstanding balance at local schools, and last December, a single tweet inspired hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations around the country.

“I don’t think the main intention of the school meal debt policies is to humiliate,” said Ms. Ramo of New Mexico Appleseed, who said the group worked closely with school nutrition departments in drafting the bill. “Mostly, school nutrition directors are trying to balance their budgets and they see this is a necessary but effective evil.”

Nonetheless, she said, “We have to separate the child from a debt they have no power to pay.”

In 2010, the Department of Agriculture was directed to examine the feasibility of establishing national standards for dealing with meal debt, but in its report to Congress last summer, the department concluded that the matter should remain under local control. Accordingly, it directed state agencies to establish a formal payment policy by July 1 or to allow districts to set their own policies by that date. Texas and California have also introduced anti-shaming legislation.

In its official guidance, the Agriculture Department discourages the use of alternate meals and other stigmatizing practices. If an alternate meal is offered, the department suggests bringing it to the child’s classroom in a paper sack so it looks like a home-packed lunch, or offering the same cold meal on the lunch line so it’s available to all students.