Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series
Policy Name: Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, New Mexico
Population: 2,081,000 (2016, US Census)
Over the years, schools have developed ways to punish and shame students who are unable to pay for their lunches. This varies from school to school but has included policies such as requiring students to wear wristbands or hand stamps, forcing students to clean the cafeteria, providing substandard meals like cold cheese sandwiches, and even dumping students’ meals in the trash. New Mexico’s Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act prohibits schools from the above punishments and imposes rules to ensure that all students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches have access to those programs.
Progress to date:
New Mexico schools have stopped lunch shaming policies. Moreover, the bill has greatly increased awareness about lunch shaming, and advocacy around the issue has received a major boost. Legislators at both the state and federal level have introduced similar bills.
The policy went into effect on April 6, 2017.
Food policy category: Social and Economic Equity
How it works:
The bill aims to reduce situations in which students are saddled with unpaid lunch debts by providing all students with information and the necessary paperwork to apply for free and reduced-price lunches. This must be included in a free enrollment packet when a student begins school.
If a school later becomes aware that a student is eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, but his or her parents or guardians have not applied for benefits, the school must then assume the responsibility to apply on the student’s behalf.
If a student holds a debt for five or more meals, the school must access state records to see if the student is eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. The school is also required to contact the parents or guardians to fill out an application for benefits or, if they are not eligible, to determine what other options are available.
During lunch, schools must provide meals to all students who ask for them whether or not they are able to pay. If a student is served a meal and then unable to pay, the school is prohibited from dumping the meal into the trash. Schools are also forbidden from stigmatizing or publicly identifying students who are unable to pay through wristbands, hand stamps, or through forced chores or other work.
These rules apply to all schools – public, private, and religious – that receive state funds.
Why it is important:
While lunch-shaming policies cruelly punish students for financial obligations that are out of their control, they do seek to address a genuine problem. A report by the School Nutrition Association shows that three out of four American schools have at least some uncollected school lunch debts on the books. Clearly, school budgets are important, but the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act provides a way to address the issue without causing unnecessary psychological or social harm to students.
Hungry students struggle academically and socially more than their well-fed peers according to a report in the Journal of Nutrition. Furthermore, the nutritional content of the food they are served matters. A paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that students who receive more nutritious school lunches perform better on standardized tests than students with lower quality meals, so schools do their students a disservice by replacing hot meals with lower quality substitutions for students who are unable to pay.
Since the bill was passed at the state level, state compliance officers are tasked with evaluating schools on their adherence to the new anti-shaming rules.
Points of Contact:
Senator Michael Padilla
Senator Linda M. Lopez
At the state level, Texas and California have introduced similar anti-shaming bills, but they have not yet been ratified. In May 2017, a bipartisan bill called the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act of 2017 was introduced in Congress.