New Mexico School Lunch Law: Governor Signs Bill, Outlaws Shaming Poor Students Who Can’t Pay To Eat

A New Mexico school lunch law went into effect last week.

The legislature’s action and signing ceremony marked an important milestone: For the first time ever, a state prohibits the so-called practice of “lunch shaming” a student when they are unable to afford the cost of a meal. Still, the new lunch anti-shaming bill has many families wondering what took lawmakers so long.

New Mexico governor Susana Martinez made history for her state and set a precedent going forward for other governments to follow, citing a Daily Mail report. With her signature on the new law, schools are no longer allowed to use the act of lunch shaming as a means of debt collection.

New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights is two-pronged on its merits. On the one hand, schools cannot attach a stigma to impoverished kids by using humiliating tactics. Further, all learning institutions in the state must champion efforts to educate families of students about federal lunch subsidies or the availability of cheaper options.

The Department of Agriculture now provides guidance after efforts to develop national standards failed in the U.S. Congress last year. Today, initiatives to prevent lunch shaming tactics lie solely with state and local governments.

Democratic state senator Michael Padilla is credited with authoring the New Mexico lunch law. He told the story about how he experienced lunch shaming during his school years. Padilla was raised by foster parents and endured the stain of being unable to afford lunch at times.

“I made Mrs. Ortiz and Mrs. Jackson, our school lunch ladies, my best friends. 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.”

Proponents of the New Mexico school lunch law complained schools that shamed students say the practice is relatively common. Reportedly, some embarrass students by discarding their lunches or placing them on cafeteria duty if they cannot foot the costs.

There are even reports that some students receive stamps on their wrists and are forced to wear humiliating stickers. One such incident took place in Alabama when a student short on funds was given the stamp that read: “I Need Lunch Money.”

Buzzfeed shared a disturbing report out of Phoenix, Arizona. There, a second-grade student was allegedly stamped with the words, “Lunch Money” as a way to warn parents about the arrears in their school account. The student’s mother called the lunch shaming moment “humiliating.”

One parent spoke about her son’s experience at Desert Cove Elementary last week. Tara Chavez spoke on the record, but asked that her child’s name remain masked to protect his identity.

“He said, ‘Hey mom, I got stamped.’ My kid’s really weird about stuff like that, so I asked if he was given a choice by the lunch lady and he said, ‘No, she just grabbed my wrist and put the stamp on.’

“I was surprised. Normally I get a slip in his folder when he needs more money.”

The New Mexico lunch law protects kids from receiving cold cheese sandwiches instead of a hot meal when they are running short on cash. While the new law doesn’t call for free lunch across the board, it does remove the shame associated with lunch shaming, according to Jennifer Ramo, who works with an anti-poverty group in New Mexico.

“Children whose parents or caregivers owe money for school lunch will no longer have to miss meals or face public embarrassment in front of their peers. No child should be forced to wipe down cafeteria tables or throw away a meal because of a debt.”

The law allows for the collection of outstanding lunch account debts, but all efforts must be done in a manner to preserve a family’s dignity. What are your thoughts about the New Mexico school lunch law?

[Featured Image by Imagesbybarbara/iStock by Getty Images]