New Mexico recently became the first state in the country to ban “lunch shaming”—the practice of putting negative attention on students whose parents haven’t paid their lunch bills. The legislation succeeded in part because of a nonprofit that highlighted the problem.
The issue of “lunch shaming” by schools has proved troublesome enough that New Mexico is tackling the issue legislatively.
Last week, the state passed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, the first bill of its kind. The bill represents a victory for New Mexico Appleseed, a poverty-focused nonprofit that has drawn attention to the issue.
The issue, in a nutshell: Families may not be able to afford paying for their students’ school lunches on electronic swipe cards, leading to a situation where the students may be forced to undergo embarrassing tasks to cover their meal—such as doing chores for the school, or wearing a wristband that highlights their family’s inability to pay for their meal.
New Mexico Appleseed’s executive director, Jennifer Ramo, told The New York Times that the issue troubled legislators.
“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,” Ramo explained to the newspaper. “It sounds like some scene from Little Orphan Annie, but it happens every day.”
Ramo’s group found an advocate for the issue in the state legislature—Majority Whip Michael Padilla, a Democrat who mopped up floors to pay for his lunches.
“It was really noticeable that I was one of the poor kids in the school,” Padilla recalled to the Times.
The problem is a challenging one for schools. According to the School Nutrition Association, roughly three-quarters of schools that responded to its School Nutrition Operations Report last year reported carrying school lunch debt on their books. Some schools were able to get around this issue, however, if they were a part of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a federal program that allows schools that mostly have low-income students to offer free lunches to everyone.
New Mexico’s bill specifically takes the stigma off the student, and instead encourages states to focus their energy on collecting the debt from parents.
“This bill draws a line in the sand between the student and the unpaid school meal fees that their parents or guardians owe, oftentimes because they cannot afford to pay on time,” Ramo said in comments to the Associated Press.
New Mexico may be the first state to pass legislation of this nature, but it may be far from the last. Governing reports that other states are considering action in the coming months as the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts rules into place requiring that states formally clarify their policies on meal debt by July 1. California and Texas currently have similar legislation up for debate.