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A ban on ‘lunch shaming’

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 5/8/2017, 11:08 a.m.
“In 2017, we’re taking hot lunches out of a child’s hands and throwing it away ... We’re one of the ...
Marian Wright Edelman

Children’s Defense Fund

“In 2017, we’re taking hot lunches out of a child’s hands and throwing it away ... We’re one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world and we’re not feeding our children lunch. They are experiencing real hunger in the middle of the school day and to me that’s just unacceptable.” – New Mexico State Sen. Michael Padilla

Here’s a test with just one question: If a hungry child can’t afford to eat, should the adults in her school punish and humiliate her for not having lunch money? As disgraceful as this question is, adults in schools across the country fail this test every single day. New Mexico has just become the first state in the nation to ban “lunch shaming” – policies that penalize children who don’t have enough money to buy a hot lunch in the cafeteria. New Mexico’s new law, the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, is a welcome move that has helped put a spotlight on a common form of cruel and unusual punishment against poor children.

State Sen. Michael Padilla, the lawmaker who introduced it, understands what it’s like to be hungry at school. As a child growing up in the foster care system, he often couldn’t afford lunch either, he said in The New York Times: “I made Mrs. Ortiz and Mrs. Jackson, our school lunch ladies, my best friends. Thank goodness they took care of me, but I had to do other things like mop the floor in the cafeteria. It was really noticeable that I was one of the poor kids in the school.” In another interview, he remembered that in addition to having to clean tables or help in the kitchen, sometimes his school lunch would be taken away or replaced with a slice of bread and cheese. “I’m 44 now, and I was shocked to find out that this was still happening. This is still a very real issue here in the United States.”

Requiring chores in exchange for food or replacing hot nutritious lunches with cold cheese and bread are common occurrences in many communities. In 2016, Pennsylvania elementary school lunch worker Stacy Koltiska made headlines when she said she quit her job over her district’s policy of denying hot lunches to students with debt and replacing them with cold cheese sandwiches after seeing tears in a child’s eyes. She said, “As a Christian, I have an issue with this. It’s sinful and shameful is what it is ... God is love, and we should love one another and be kind. There’s enough wealth in this world that no child should go hungry, especially in school. To me this is just wrong.”

This wrong is compounded in other school districts, which use physical marks on the children to “remind” parents that they haven’t paid, as Arizona parent Tara Chavez learned when her son came home from his elementary school earlier this month with the words “Lunch Money” stamped in block letters on his arm. She later learned her son’s school lunch account had money in it but was low. “I asked if he was given a choice by the lunch lady and he said, ‘No, she just grabbed my wrist and put the stamp on.’ ... I think there’s a better way to communicate the message than stamping a child with the word ‘Lunch Money.’ There’s a billion other ways you could do it that would be better than that.” Still other schools do not feed children at all. The New York Times shared the story of an Omaha school cafeteria cashier who asked to resign her position at a school with a “no money, no meal” policy: “She had been secretly paying for students’ meals,” a coworker remembered, “and couldn’t afford to keep it up.”