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COLUMN: Other states should adopt New Mexico’s anti-“lunch shaming” law

Last week, New Mexico took a step in the right direction in educational policy, and it’s one that the rest of the country should follow.

Their legislature outlawed “lunch shaming,” a public marker of when a child has no money in their lunch account. Often, children are allowed to charge a certain amount of lunches to their account, but after that, students are given money reminders — and typically in a way that embarrasses the child in question.

The recently adopted New Mexico law, called the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, “directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance and puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children,” the New York Times reported. There’s a variety of different forms in which lunch shaming can 
manifest itself.

The New York Times reported that one school in Alabama would stamp their students’ hands with the phrase “I Need Lunch Money.” Other schools force children to clean the lunchroom in order to pay for their lunch. Some will even take food out of a child’s hands if they can’t pay for it.

My high school’s policy on lunch charges is slightly less shame-inducing, but one with a similar result nonetheless: students can charge two lunches to their account, but no more than that. And if they try to charge three or more lunches without paying off the debt, they simply won’t be eating lunch that day.

There are several glaringly obvious problems with all of these school policies.

First, the vast majority of children have no resources to pay for their own lunches if their parents are unable to. Expecting these families to magically figure out finances has no place in our education system.

Secondly, K-12 is a fairly difficult place to navigate at times. Children and teenagers feel the pressure of trying to fit in with their 
classmates constantly.

Visibly marking a child — whether it be with a stamp, forced labor or simply no lunch at all — because they can’t pay for their lunch makes that child a prime target for teasing and bullying. It should go without saying that this is not something our policies should be enabling.

Finally, the whole idea of not allowing a child to have a lunch seems antithetical to what should be the mission of educational institutions. Places of learning should knock down barriers that prevent students from learning, not erect them.

If a girl has to go the entire seven hour school day without any food, it seems obvious that her thoughts aren’t going to be focused on what they should be: learning. And if a boy feels singled out because he has a stamp on his hand that says “I Need Lunch Money,” his brain power will likely be spent on worrying about what his classmates are thinking about him, not multiplication problems.

As Ann Moylan, a professor of Family and Consumer Sciences at Sacramento State University, said, “Feeling safe is so critical to learning. I see this policy as attacking a child’s feeling of safety.”

Shaming children for something entirely out of their control is something of the past, and in passing legislation to prevent it, New Mexico has unequivocally affirmed it. The rest of the country should too.

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