A new law that was unanimously passed in the House of Representatives last week could become the first piece of legislation in the country to prohibit the act of student “lunch shaming”.

Lunch shaming is considered the practice of shaming or humiliating school children who are behind on their meal fees. Examples of this practice have surfaced around the country; one boy in Alabama was reportedly sent home with a stamp on his arm reading: “I need lunch money”. Lunch ladies have been forced to throw out students’ hot meals because they didn’t have enough funds on their student accounts. Other schools have made children wipe down tables and wash dishes as payment for their meals.

The Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, however, would prevent children from being punished for meal fees.

“Children whose parents or caregivers owe money for school lunch will no longer have to miss meals or face public embarrassment in front of their peers,” said Jennifer Ramo, executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, the organization the spear-headed the bill. “No child should be forced to wipe down cafeteria tables or throw away a meal because of a debt. We’re urging Governor Martinez to make New Mexico a leader in the fight against child hunger by signing this first-of-its-kind legislation.”

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“This bill draws a line in the sand between the student and the unpaid school meal fees that their parents or guardians owe, oftentimes because they cannot afford to pay on time,” continued Ramo. “Many children count on school meals for the nutrition they need to be able to learn and thrive in the classroom.”

The bill requires all New Mexican schools to serve students healthy meals, no matter their financial standing. It also outlines efforts that will make it easier for low-income families to apply for free meals, if they haven’t automatically been registered already.

“All school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program are now required to develop a policy on addressing unpaid school meal fees. States can develop a statewide policy to ensure fairness for all their students,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school and out-of-school-time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, the nation’s leading anti-hunger advocacy organization. “New Mexico’s bill protects the needs of students to have access to healthy meals at school, while ensuring that school administrators are able to qualify eligible students for free school meals. Other states should follow New Mexico’s lead.”

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