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Federal Pressure Could Spur More 'Lunch Shaming' Bans

New Mexico is the first state to ban the practice. Now the rest have till the end of the school year to adopt an official policy for what happens when parents miss meal payments.

Lunch Debt Donors
(AP/Mary Esch)
Cara Valente, a state legislative analyst in New Mexico, knows what it's like to have her children punished because she missed a school lunch payment. At times, she and her husband had needed to wait until their next paychecks to cover the bill, even if that meant being a couple weeks late. 

But that tardiness had consequences: Per school policy, her children couldn’t have the more expensive and nutritious meal.

“My kids were mad at us for not having paid the bill and causing them embarrassment,” Valente says. “I was angry because my kids were not doing as well in school as they could have been because they were hungry.”

This year, Valente’s boss, state Sen. Michael Padilla, who also has a personal connection to so-called lunch shaming, sponsored legislation that makes New Mexico the first state to ban the practice. 

"We experienced this ourselves growing up," he says.

As children, Padilla and his sisters often mopped floors in exchange for meals at school. 

The law, which New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed last week, bans schools from withholding a nutritious school meal and from publicly identifying or stigmatizing students who can't pay for one. Although the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act is the first of its kind in the country, it likely won't be for long.

The problem the law seeks to address is common across the country. About three-quarters of school districts have unpaid meal debt, according to a 2016 survey by the School Nutrition Association. It's less clear how common lunch shaming is, but a quick Google search turns up recent news stories about such incidents in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Utah

Most states don't have a policy for what to do when parents fall behind in their lunch payments, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That will change soon -- for better or for worse.

Under a new requirement from the USDA, every state in the country must clarify its policy on meal debt by July 1. It's up to the states, though, to decide how lenient or punitive they want to be about late payments. Two states, California and Texas, are currently considering legislation that mirrors New Mexico's.

In New Mexico, schools will not only have to stop lunch shaming, they'll also have to make extra efforts to contact parents about debt. In cases where families qualify for federal subsidies, school officials must try to help them sign up for the benefits. Schools can still use other tactics, such as revoking a parking pass or withholding students’ transcripts, to get parents to pay.

Some states, however, will likely leave it to school districts to define their policy. 

So far, the idea of putting the health of students over the health of school budgets has garnered rare bipartisan support.

The bill from Padilla, a Democrat, faced some initial skepticism from Republicans. But after members checked with school officials in their districts, many of them voted for the measure. It passed in the Senate 30-7 and in the House 60-0. When Gov. Martinez, a Republican, signed the bill, she noted that research shows children perform better in school when they’re not hungry.

In California, Democratic state Sen. Bob Hertzberg's similar bill passed out of two committees this spring, unopposed and with Republican support.

“It’s one of those issues that, irrespective of party, people understand that you don’t visit on the child the sins of the parents,” Hertzberg says. “It’s just not right.”

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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