Schools Will Soon Have To Put In Writing If They 'Lunch Shame'

Originally published on April 17, 2017 7:31 pm

Every day in this country students come to school without a way to pay for lunch. Right now it's up to the school to decide what happens next.

Since new legislation out of New Mexico on so-called lunch shaming made headlines, we've heard a lot about how schools react.

Some provide kids an alternative lunch, like a cold cheese sandwich. Other schools sometimes will provide hot lunch, but require students do chores, have their hand stamped or wear a wristband showing they're behind in payment. And, some schools will deny students lunch all together.

With policies to handle unpaid meals all over the map, the USDA, which administers the federal school meal program, will soon require that all school districts have a policy on what to do when kids can't pay — a growing problem. By July 1, those policies must be in writing and communicated to staff, parents and the community.

"We're saying feed these children first, and let the grownups sort out the finances," says Jennifer Ramo, who's with the anti-hunger group, New Mexico Appleseed. About nine years ago she says she started hearing stories about kids receiving a tray of food only to have it tossed out by a cafeteria worker when they realized students didn't have the money to pay.

Seeing the need, Ramo worked with New Mexico state Sen. Michael Padilla to write the state law banning schools from shaming children without the ability to pay for meals.

"A lot of people are very disgusted by this practice and they're reaching out — calling their own state senators and state representatives and asking them to get on it immediately," says Sen. Padilla. Since the bill became law earlier this month, he says lawmakers from around the country have reached out to see how they can address the same issues where they are.

Texas and California are already working on similar legislation. California Democratic state Sen. Robert Hertzberg introduced the Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act.

"When I presented the bill, the two Republican senators on the committee joined as co-authors. How great is that? It just tells you this is not a partisan issue. It's a basic fundamental human issue everybody gets," he says.

The School Nutrition Association found about 75 percent of districts had some unpaid student meal debt at the end of the last school year. Part of the challenge is that students who qualify for free or reduced priced meals through the federal school lunch program, aren't signed up. The law in New Mexico aims to deal with that fact.

Jennifer Ramo says her state law is leading the way. Perhaps the timing couldn't be better. She says she's confident that because districts must now put their debt policies in writing, they will get much more scrutiny.

"I'm hoping communities really put pressure on their own districts to say, 'We want our children fed,'" she says.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Every day across the U.S., kids go to school without a way to pay for lunch. And in some cases, that leads to something called lunch shaming. That's when schools single out students who can't pay, like making them do chores or wear a wristband. Now new legislation in New Mexico has put an end to lunch shaming, and other states are looking to do the same. Megan Kamerick of member station KUNM reports.

MEGAN KAMERICK, BYLINE: It's lunchtime at Amy Biehl High School, a public charter school in Albuquerque where about half the students are on the federal free lunch program. Senior Ryan Flynn is one of them. He's hanging out near Karla Medrano's cash register, nibbling on fried steak fingers.

RYAN FLYNN: Karla took care of me. I love Karla. Karla's probably one of the nicest lunch ladies I know.

KAMERICK: At one point, Ryan was briefly switched out of the program which provides low-cost or free meals for children based on federal poverty guidelines. And he says coming up with the 3.50 was difficult, so Medrano paid for him herself or let him eat leftovers in the kitchen. She says she does this for a lot of students.

KARLA MEDRANO: I will never leave a kid without a lunch tray.

KAMERICK: Even before the state law passed, this school already had a policy that no student would be denied a meal. Now the law guarantees all students a meal that meets federal nutrition guidelines, and it prohibits practices like making kids with debts wear wristbands or handstamps. Schools can't make them do chores or toss their meals in the trash. And administrators need to ensure all kids eligible for the federal school nutrition program are enrolled.

JENNIFER RAMO: We're saying feed these children first, and then let the grown-ups sort out the finances.

KAMERICK: It was nine years ago when Jennifer Ramo first learned about lunch shaming. She's with the anti-hunger group New Mexico Appleseed. She'd heard stories about kids getting trays of food, then workers would toss them when they realized the students' prepaid accounts were empty.

RAMO: Sometimes they'd just get nothing. Sometimes they'd get what they call the cheese sandwich of shame. But we were hearing so much of it that it really made us realize it had to stop.

KAMERICK: So Ramo worked with State Senator Michael Padilla to write the bill. Since the bill became law, Padilla says he's been a little busy.

MICHAEL PADILLA: But it has been like trying to take a sip from a fire hydrant.

KAMERICK: Lawmakers from around the country, seeing what New Mexico did, have contacted Padilla to see how they can address the same issues in their states.

PADILLA: A lot of people are very disgusted by this practice, and they're calling their own state senators and state representatives and asking them to get on it immediately. And so, you know, I think you're going to see a groundswell of action in the states.

KAMERICK: Texas and California are already working on similar laws. The California bill was introduced by Democratic State Senator Robert Hertzberg.

ROBERT HERTZBERG: When I presented the bill, the two Republican senators on our committee joined as co-authors. How great is that? It just tells you this is not a partisan issue. It's a basic fundamental human issue that everybody gets.

KAMERICK: This push comes just as a federal rule takes effect July 1 requiring school districts to develop official policies on unpaid meals. The School Nutrition Association found about 75 percent of districts had some unpaid student meal debt at the end of the last school year. What those debt policies will look like is entirely up to each school district, but Jennifer Ramo with New Mexico Appleseed is confident the policies will get a lot more scrutiny thanks to her state's new law.

RAMO: I'm hoping communities really put pressure on their own districts to say, we want our children fed.

KAMERICK: Lunch shaming affects the whole school environment, she says, and that makes it difficult for children to learn. For NPR News in Albuquerque, I'm Megan Kamerick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.