In-Depth: Sponsoring Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), a member of the Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to prohibit school "lunch shaming," which is the practice of discriminating against or stigmatizing children who have outstanding credit or don't have enough money to pay for meals at school. Rep. Haaland says:
No child should have to worry about being hungry at school, but there are still places in this country with outdated policies that force children to bear the burden of poverty. In 2017, New Mexico took the lead on ending these harmful policies and now we’re working to ensure children across the country have full stomachs when they’re in school so they can reach their full learning potential.”
Senate sponsor Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) adds:
"Lunch shaming is a practice so cruel and backwards that most Americans would be shocked to know it happens. And yet school districts across the country are allowed to use these appalling tactics. Instead of stigmatizing kids who come from struggling households, withholding hot meals from students, and depriving some children of their only healthy meal of the day, we should be working to find solutions to end childhood hunger and to support families in need. We know that hunger can be an insurmountable barrier to success in the classroom. I was proud when New Mexico became the first state in the country to outlaw the practice of lunch shaming, and I will continue to do everything I can in the Senate to pass this legislation on a federal level so no child will have to spend their time at school feeling ashamed of a debt they have no power to pay.”
Last Congress, sponsoring Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) introduced this bill to ban schools from “lunch shaming” — publicly singling out children through wristbands or chores if they can’t pay for school meals:
“No student should be humiliated in front of their peers because their parents can’t afford to pay for a meal. It is shocking and shameful that this happens to hungry children, but nearly half of all school districts use some form of lunch shaming. This bipartisan bill will put an end to these draconian practices and help ensure that students can focus on their studies without looking over their shoulder to see their friends pointing fingers.”
New Mexico Appleseed is one of the organizations sponsoring this bill. Its executive director, Jennifer Ramo, says:
"There are few more powerful antidotes to the causes and consequences of child poverty than food and dignity. This important bill ensures that children receive the vital nutrition they need to focus in school through the national school lunch program. And, it ensures that they do so with their self-respect intact. We have saved New Mexican children from the devastating effects of being humiliated and missing meals through our state’s Hunger-Free Student Bill of Rights, and now we are excited to see this protection extended nationally to all children in need."
The federal government, via U.S. Dept. of Agriculture regulations, requires school districts to seek payment for unpaid school lunch balances. However, it doesn't mandate how schools pursue this repayment. The School Nutrition Association's Diane Pratt-Heavne notes that after new guidelines requiring districts to address this issue were issued before the 2017-2018 school year, reports of school lunch shaming stories increased. However, the School Nutrition Association also notes, most districts avoid the practice of publicly identifying students with lunch debt in favor of using online payment programs, finding ways to contact parents about their debts other than through their children, or accepting charitable contributions.
This bill has 14 bipartisan House cosponsors, including 11 Democrats and three Republicans, in the 116th Congress. A Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), has 13 bipartisan Senate cosponsors, including 11 Democrats and two Republicans.
Last Congress, this bill had the support of 147 bipartisan cosponsors in the House, including 130 Democrats and 17 Republicans, and didn't receive a committee vote. A Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Udall, had 13 Democratic cosponsors and didn't see committee action last Congress.
FRAC, Feeding America, National PTA, Share our Strength, First Focus, Food Corps, New Mexico Appleseed, Hunger Task Force, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, California Food Policy Advocates, New Mexico Voices for Children, Hunger Free Vermont, End Childhood Hunger – South Carolina, Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, Children’s Hunger Alliance, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, Cultivating Community, Alabama Food Bank Association, Feed the Children, Hunger Free Oklahoma, Hunger Solutions New York, West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, and Missoula Food Bank support this bill.
Of Note: Rep. Haaland introduced this bill in response to news that a Warwick, Rhode Island school district intended to give students with unpaid lunch debts a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich instead of hot food
. In a tweet
in response, Rep. Haaland said:
"Forcing children to bear the burden of poverty is wrong. NM took the lead to end harmful policies like this, and now I'm working to make sure no student has to face lunch shaming. #StandUpForKids"
Warwick school officials told the Providence Journal the policy is needed because the district is owned tens of thousands of dollars in lunch money, and is also contending with a budget deficit in the millions. Karen Bachus, the Warwick School Committee's chairwoman, says the district is owed over $40,000 in lunch money
. Other school officials estimate the total is closer to $77,000
. Due to a $4 million deficit
, the Warwick school district has already cut back on janitorial services and is considering eliminating a popular mentoring program that doesn't have funding.
In lunch shaming episodes nationwide, students have been branded with stamps, given cheese sandwiches instead of hot meals, or even had their lunches thrown away after employees discovered they weren't current on their lunch payments. In 2015, a Colorado cafeteria worker said she'd been fired after giving free food to hungry elementary school students, one of whom had broken down in tears. Similarly, in 2016, Stacy Koltiska, a Pennsylvania school lunch worker, quit in protest after she was forced to refuse a hot meal to a student because he
couldn't pay for it. Koltiska said, "As a Christian, I have an issue with this. It’s sinful and shameful is what it is."
A number of states, including New Mexico (the first state to pass such a law), Virginia, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Texas, Iowa, Washington, New York and Pennsylvania have laws on the books prohibiting lunch shaming. Rhode Island is considering similar legislation.