SANTA FE – State Sen. Michael Padilla – who grew up in foster homes around New Mexico – says he knows what it’s like to go to school hungry.
Now state lawmakers across the country, he said, are asking about a bill he helped pass this session to address the problem.
The “Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act,” in fact, has landed New Mexico on the “Today” show, National Public Radio and The New York Times.
The proposal – crafted with help from New Mexico Appleseed, an anti-poverty group – prohibits schools from publicly identifying or stigmatizing students whose parents don’t pay their cafeteria bills. It also requires schools to serve a meal that meets federal standards to any student who asks for one, regardless of ability to pay, unless a parent wants the meal withheld.
Schools would also be required to take extra steps to sign up students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
Supporters described it as the first law of its kind in the country.
“We just can’t have kids being shamed at schools and going hungry,” said Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed. “For a lot of these families in New Mexico, it’s a triumph to even get your child to school. The idea that we wouldn’t feed them while they’re there is unthinkable.”
She told the Journal that the New Mexico legislation has made the news as far away as France. And she spoke on the “Today” show on NBC just this week.
“I think it really hit a nerve,” she said.
Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat, said he learned as a child to befriend the “lunch ladies” to ensure he’d get a meal. But he also helped set up chairs, clean tables and do other work in the cafeteria.
“It’s very hard to focus on your studies when you’re hungry,” Padilla said in an interview Tuesday.
Senate Bill 374 – co-sponsored by Padilla and Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque – also prohibits requiring a student to do chores if his or her parents can’t pay for lunch, unless all students participate in the chores regardless of lunch debt.
Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed over half the bills passed this legislative session, but she and lawmakers found common ground on the hunger legislation.
“Study after study tells us that hungry students can’t keep up in school to meet their potential,” she wrote in her message approving the bill.
New Mexico’s largest school district – Albuquerque Public Schools, where 73 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch – is evaluating how the bill will affect its operations.
The district, in some cases, serves cheese sandwiches to students with unpaid debts, but the meal meets the required nutritional standards, a spokeswoman said. The students don’t have to stand in separate lines or otherwise be publicly identified, she said. But it’s not clear whether APS will continue serving the cheese sandwiches.
“Our greatest hope with the passage of this bill is that more families will sign up for the (federal lunch) program,” APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said in a written statement. “We’ve long believed that there are many, many more students who qualify for the federal lunch program, but they don’t apply for a number of reasons, such as stigma, immigration concerns and others.”
The district’s unpaid meal tab is about $35,000, she said.
The legislation, meanwhile, has provided a bright spot after a 60-day legislative session dominated by New Mexico’s budget crisis.
Martinez vetoed parts of a budget and tax package passed by the Legislature, and she plans to call a special session to address state finances later this month.
But the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act has captured national attention. Padilla said he’s heard from 20 states interested in passing similar legislation.
“New Mexico outlaws school lunch shaming” was the headline of a New York Times article that contrasted the bill’s passage with an episode in Alabama last year in which a student was stamped with the words “I need lunch money” on his arm, according to a report on AL.com, the website of The Birmingham News.
In Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that elementary school students in 2014 watched as their lunches were tossed into the trash because of meal debts.
“People on both sides of the aisle were genuinely horrified that schools were allowed to throw out children’s food or make them work to pay off debt,” Ramo told The New York Times. “It sounds like some scene from ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ but it happens every day.”