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New laws aim to end 'lunch shaming' for students without lunch money

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Some state lawmakers want to outlaw the practice of "lunch shaming" kids whose parents haven't paid their lunch bills.

In the past few years, you may have heard the term "lunch shaming" being thrown around. It's basically the practice of penalizing students who don't have money to pay for their school lunch.

Lunch shaming has been the focus of recent news stories about cafeteria workers who have either quit their jobs because they refused to deny students hot lunches or were fired for giving free food to students who couldn't pay.

Protocol for what schools do in these situations range from giving out alternate lunches, like cheese sandwiches, to having students do chores, denying students food or taking and throwing away food they've already been served.

Because these policies vary widely from district to district, the USDA is requiring that all districts' policies be put in writing and made publicly available by July 1. The department discourages practices like alternate lunches and taking away food.

But some state lawmakers want to take it a step further by eliminating so-called lunch shaming altogether.

Earlier this month, New Mexico enacted the Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights Act. The law gives all students access to the same lunches and mandates schools work with parents to pay their debt or help eligible families sign up for free and reduced-price lunch, according to NPR.

Schools will instead penalize unpaid debt using methods like withholding students’ transcripts or revoking older students’ parking passes.

The legislation was introduced by Democratic state Sen. Michael Padilla, who says as a child he mopped the cafeteria floors to earn his school lunch. Hetold NPR:

I grew up in foster homes, multiple foster homes. It's very obvious who the poor kids are in the school. Students in circumstances like his often have to watch as other children get served a hot lunch, while they are given a piece of bread — with maybe a little bit of cheese. A 6-year-old maybe up to about an 11- or a 12–year-old, a 14-year-old, they have no power to fix this issue and to resolve this. If their parents have debt in the lunchroom, then that is not something that they have control over, and I don't know why we're punishing them. So this prohibits that — it outlaws that — and it focuses more on the child's well-being rather than the debt itself.

California is in the process of enacting similar legislation. Last month, Democratic State Senator Robert Hertzberg introduced the Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act. He told CBS News:

You’ve got kids today who go to school and they get their hot lunches taken away from them because their parents haven’t paid the bill, and they get replaced — here in Los Angeles where I’m from — with half a sandwich and four ounces of juice. What I’m trying to do is just readjust the law in a way that says you can’t do that. Go after the parents. Collect money from the parents, it’s no problem. Take money out of their bank accounts or whatever the case may be. But don’t put these kids in a situation where you’re shaming them. Don’t let the failures of the parents find their impact on the kids in front of their friends like that.

According to the School Nutrition Association, roughly 75% of school districts had uncollected debt at the end of last school year. The amounts ranged anywhere from thousands of dollars to as much as $4.7 million. Jennifer Ramo is with the anti-hunger group, New Mexico Appleseed. She told The New York Times:

I don’t think the main intention of the school meal debt policies is to humiliate. Mostly, school nutrition directors are trying to balance their budgets and they see this is a necessary but effective evil. Nonetheless, we have to separate the child from a debt they have no power to pay.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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