New Mexico Democrats Introduce Federal Legislation to Prohibit School 'Lunch Shaming'

Bill would ban schools nationwide from practice of publicly singling out children — such as with wrist bands or assigned chores — if they can't pay for school meals

WASHINGTON D.C. — Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), along with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), introduced bipartisan companion bills in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives to prohibit schools from discriminating against or stigmatizing children who have outstanding credit or don't have enough money to pay for meals at school. The legislation, the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, would ban schools from singling out children — such as by requiring them to wear wristbands or hand stamps or do extra chores — because their parents have not paid their school meal bills.

The Democrats' bill is a national response to the strong steps that New Mexico has taken to end school meal shaming. Although lunch shaming occurs in schools across the country, New Mexico's Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights is the first such state law in the nation. The federal Anti-Lunch Shaming Act aims to provide similar protections to students throughout the country.

The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act prohibits schools from using humiliation or throwing a child's meal away because their parent hasn't paid their school meal bill. It requires schools to direct communications regarding meal debt to the parent, not the child. The bill also aims to make the process for applying for free and reduced price lunch applications simpler by expressing that it is the sense of Congress that schools should provide these applications more effectively to the families who need them, coordinate with other programs to ensure that homeless and foster children are enrolled for free meals, and set up online systems to make paying for meals easier for parents when possible. 

"Children who have no ability to pay their debts shouldn't be shamed, punished at school or even go hungry because their parents can't pay their school meal bills," Udall said. "Shaming students or requiring extra chores from kids who need help paying for lunch is inexcusable — not only does it stigmatize our most vulnerable children, it takes away from time they can be spending on schoolwork or with their peers. This meal shaming can sometimes stand in the way of students' only healthy meal of the day — we can't expect our kids to succeed in the classroom if they are hungry. I'm proud of New Mexico for being the first state to outlaw this harmful practice and will 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."

“No student should be humiliated in front of their peers because their parents can’t afford to pay for a meal,” Lujan Grisham said. “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.”

“Child hunger is a serious problem facing New Mexico. We know that when children are hungry it impacts their ability to focus and learn in the classroom,” said Heinrich. “Stigmatizing or shaming students for not being able to afford lunch is unacceptable. Nothing is more important than improving the well-being of our children and I will continue to work to find solutions that ensure our students can grow and thrive.” 

"The humiliation inflicted on children who are late paying their school lunch bills — or don't have the means to pay those bills — is a national disgrace. I am proud that my home state of New Mexico passed legislation to end school lunch shaming earlier this year," said Luján. "Now it is time to remedy the problem on a national level and why I am proud to stand with my colleagues to introduce this important legislation."

The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act has been endorsed by New Mexico Appleseed — the nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization that created New Mexico's Hunger Free Students’ Bill of Rights —whose executive director Jennifer Ramo championed the New Mexico law with N.M. Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla. 

"This legislation is critical to taking our students' focus off of their stomachs and placing it on their studies," Padilla said.

"It is difficult to understand how this practice came to be, but it has to end,” Ramo said. “All of the pencils and books and desks in the world don’t matter if children are hungry and can’t focus.”

In addition to Udall, Lujan Grisham, Heinrich and Luján, the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act is cosponsored by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and U.S. Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), and Bobby Scott (D-Va.)