On April 7, New Mexico became the first state in the country to prohibit schools from a practice called “lunch shaming” through the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights. Lunch shaming involves denying children school meals or otherwise embarrassing them in front of their peers as a debt collection tool to pressure their parents to pay the lunch bills. The practice uses the children as pawns in an attempt to collect money from their parents. Prior to the law, this was a common practice in New Mexico and around the country.
This new law and the practice of lunch shaming made international news in outlets such as CNN, NBC, BBC, Fox News and Le Monde because few could believe that an adult would do this to a child or that a law was required to address something so common sense. If the global outcry that occurred was any indication, our politically divided society had reached a consensus on something important: starving and humiliating schoolchildren is bad policy and something nobody wants to see continue.
The Hunger Free Students’ Bill of Rights, spearheaded by the nonpartisan, nonprofit policy organization New Mexico Appleseed, sponsored by Sens. Michael Padilla and Linda Lopez, both Albuquerque Democrats, and signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, does four things:
1. Requires districts to let children charge meals. The bill states that schools must extend credit to a family so that the child can still eat, even if the parents need more time to pay or simply forgot, as busy parents may do. This does not mean the child eats for free. This law does not require districts to serve free meals to children ineligible for free meals.
2. Prohibits districts from denying children meals or otherwise embarrassing them to collect the debts accrued by the charge policy. This law merely states that districts need to address the debt of the parents with the parents and not the child. In this credit-based society, one would be hard pressed to find another debt-collection method that involved denying food to the debtor’s child – who has no power to pay the debt. Whether the parent is a “deadbeat” or merely needs more time to pay should not affect how the child is treated. In fact, the children whose parents refuse to pay may be the most vulnerable of all. This bill ensures that school counselors are checking in on those children to check if the nonpayment is an indicator of something more troubling.
3. Requires districts to up their game, ensuring that as many free/reduced-price eligible kids (as are eligible) are enrolled as such, and not simply let them accrue debt. … . Much of the debt schools accrue may be children who are eligible, but were either not enrolled or were accruing debt between the time they applied and the time they enrolled. Districts can use the date the child applied to begin free meals, versus the date they are approved. Districts are now required to enroll children they know to be eligible who have not or don’t have to fill out applications, including homeless children and children in a household with other eligible children.
4. Permits districts to collect the debt from parents. Districts retain a wide range of tools (to do so), including sending bills, using debt-collection services and even taking debtors to court. If the parents do not respond to these measures, the law requires the districts to investigate whether any other concerning child welfare issues are present that might explain the nonpayment.
New Mexico Appleseed is a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy organization dedicated to eradicating poverty through systemic change.