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School Lunch Shaming Is Now Illegal in New Mexico

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Every now and then a law comes around banning a thing you didn't even know existed in the first place. Such is the case with New Mexico's anti-school lunch shaming statute, which bars schools in the Land of Enchantment from forcing kids to throw away food, wear specific wristbands, or complete chores if they are unable to afford a meal.

And if you were unaware that children as young as 5 or 6 needed a Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights Act, perhaps it's because you didn't know what some schools have been doing to shame underprivileged students.

School Lunch Stigma

New Mexico's new law, thought to be the first of its kind in the country, prohibits schools from stigmatizing students who can't afford school meals. Specifically:

A. A school shall not:
(1) publicly identify or stigmatize a
student who cannot pay for a meal or who owes a meal debt by,
for example, requiring that a student wear a wristband or
hand stamp; or
(2) require a student who cannot pay for a
meal or who owes a meal debt to do chores or other work to
pay for meals; provided that chores or work required of all
students regardless of a meal debt is permitted.

The law also requires schools to both assist parents in applying for meal assistance and work with them to resolve any unpaid school meal debt.

Shame on Our Schools

New Mexico's law shed light on some other shady practices in schools when it comes to students who can't afford food. The New York Times found similar -- and sometimes worse -- instances of shaming nationwide:

In Alabama, a child short on funds was stamped on the arm with "I Need Lunch Money." In some schools, children are forced to clean cafeteria tables in front of their peers to pay the debt. Other schools require cafeteria workers to take a child's hot food and throw it in the trash if he doesn't have the money to pay for it.

As Jennifer Ramo, executive director of anti-poverty group New Mexico Appleseed, told the Times, "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. It sounds like some scene from 'Little Orphan Annie,' but it happens every day."

If people didn't know schools were trying to humiliate poor and hungry children then, they sure do now.

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