Lawmakers want to ban policies that shame kids for not being able to afford lunch.

By Elisabeth Sherman
Updated May 24, 2017
School Lunch Shaming
Credit: © Getty Images/Blend Images

In early April, Tara Chavez noticed something unusual on her son’s arm when she picked him up from his elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona: It was a black stamp that read, “Lunch Money” in large black block letters. Chavez was understandably stunned.

“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,” she told Buzzfeed News.

The stamp is supposed to be a reminder for parents to refill their kid’s school lunch account. Chavez is among a growing contingent of parents, educators, and now lawmakers, who say that these policies humiliate kids. They’re urging schools to ban lunch shaming practices, like the stamp.

“I think there’s a better way to communicate the message than stamping a child with the word ‘Lunch Money,’” Chavez said. “There’s a billion other ways you could do it that would be better than that."

After the incident went viral on Twitter, Paradise Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, issued a statement saying that they will stop using the stamps to remind parents to refill their kid’s lunch accounts.

According to the Atlantic, a national survey of more than 1,000 public school districts found around 71 percent of them reported unpaid meal debt in the 2012-2013 school year. The debt could be as high as $4 million at some schools. Many have adopted brutal ways of making sure they make their money back.

Last year, ABC reported that these policies can make students feel "ostracized, shamed or not included". But it wasn’t until this year that state officials started to do something about these disturbing incidents.

New Mexico became the first state to ban lunch shaming last week. In that state, some schools made students mop floors to make up the money, wear wrist bands to single them out for having an unpaid account, or even throw their lunch out in the front of them, rather than allow them to eat.

All pretty despicable behavior, and it was challenged by Senator Michael Padilla, who grew up in foster care and often didn’t have the ability to pay for his lunch.

The New Mexico law, entitled the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, was signed by the New Mexico governor last week. It prohibits the school from taking any action against a student that might embarrass him or her, states that schools must contact parents directly if the account is overdrawn, and requires that schools serve a healthy meal to any child who needs it.

California may be following suit soon. Senator Bob Hertzberg, of Los Angeles, introduced legislation to ban similar practices state-wide. The Sacramento Bee reports that, “Senate Bill 250 would prevent schools from withholding the meals and require school officials to tell guardians when unpaid lunch fees exceed five full-priced lunches.” The bill passed through the Senate Education Committee last month.

“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,” Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, an anti-poverty group that help advocate for the New Mexico law, told the New York Times. “It sounds like some scene from ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ but it happens every day.”