Opening Statements

The war on lunch shaming: Policymakers work to protect kids from stigma

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children sitting at school lunch table


When Jennifer Ramo became executive director of the legal nonprofit New Mexico Appleseed in 2009, the Albuquerque Public Schools were making national news for serving cold cheese sandwiches instead of hot meals to kids whose parents were behind on their lunch tab. Now, after passing the first anti-lunch-shaming law in the country, the state is a national model for school lunch policy.

Under federal law, many of the students Ramo encountered were eligible for a free hot meal. But about 50 percent of them weren’t enrolled in the program, she says.

“We worked really hard to improve our enrollment numbers in the state,” Ramo says. “But the lunch shaming still continued.”

After enrollment, many students began to rack up lunch debt and were confronted in egregious ways. It was a common story across the country: Children unable to pay for their lunch had hot meals thrown in the trash, were denied food, had their hands stamped with “I need lunch money,” and were required to complete chores to settle their debts. But after public outcry and efforts by advocates and legislators, a number of states are waging a war against lunch shaming, rethinking mealtime policies for low-income students.

Legislatures across the country, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program, are taking a stand to implement safeguards to protect needy students from lunch shaming. In September, New York City officials announced that all 1.1 million public school students will receive a free daily lunch. The “universal free lunch” approach has been widely praised for creating a system that will help students who already receive free lunch, as well as those who may never have applied out of fear of stigmatization.

Among other states, Texas and California have passed laws sparked by lunch shaming. And anti-hunger advocates continue to lobby for a national policy. According to the USDA, more than 20,000 schools have expanded free food offerings for breakfast and lunch, including ones in New York City, Chicago and Detroit.

New Mexico has taken the strongest stance on the issue yet. The Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights passed last April, outlawing lunch-shaming practices. The law is the model for a federal bill introduced in Congress last May. For New Mexico advocates, it was a victory years in the making.

Spurred by Ramo’s team at New Mexico Appleseed and sponsored by state Sen. Michael Padilla, the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights requires that all kids receive a meal regardless of what they owe, and that kids are to be left out of debt repayment discussions.

“We are a credit society,” Ramo says. “And I cannot think of a single other credit relationship where if you don’t pay they take food from your children.”

Squeezed budgets nonetheless put pressure on schools to collect lunch money. About three-quarters of school districts have unpaid school lunch debt, and it’s trending upward. A recent report by the School Nutrition Association says 76.3 percent of school districts had unpaid meal debt at the end of the 2014-15 school year—up from 70.8 percent in 2012-13.

Many schools still can chase the debt by withholding transcripts and serving alternative meals for students who aren’t paid up. But as of July 1, 2017, the USDA requires all school districts to clarify their policies on meal debt repayment.

While the poorest districts can avoid lunch shaming through Community Eligibility Provision programs that feed schools cash-free, outside those districts “there’s a lot of kids who are above the poverty line, but they’re still incredibly poor,” Ramo says. “The real thing we need to do is start covering more kids with free meals.”

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