September 19, 2019

Udall, Collins Secure Federal Action to Address Lunch Shaming in Agriculture Funding Bill

WASHINGTON— Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) secured report language within the Fiscal Year 2020 Department of Agriculture funding bill directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take action to curb the practice of lunch shaming.

The language directs the Secretary of Agriculture to provide additional guidance to program operators to address the ongoing issue of shaming school children for unpaid school lunch fees. Under the provision, schools would be encouraged to identify approaches that protect children from public embarrassment; communicate outstanding unpaid school lunch fees with the parent or guardian, not the child; and take additional steps to ensure that all students who qualify for free and reduced meals are efficiently enrolled to receive them.

"Lunch shaming is a practice so cruel and backwards that most Americans would be shocked to know it happens. And yet school districts across the country are allowed to use these harmful tactics. Instead of stigmatizing kids who come from struggling households, withholding hot meals from students, and depriving some children of their only healthy meal of the day, we should be working to find solutions to end childhood hunger and to support families in need,” said Udall, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. “We know that hunger can be an insurmountable barrier to success in the classroom. That is why I was proud when New Mexico became the first state in the country to outlaw the practice of lunch shaming and I will continue to do everything I can in the Senate to pass my legislation, the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, 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.”

“All students, regardless of socioeconomic status, should have the opportunity to learn in a supportive environment,” said Collins.  “No child should feel ashamed or stigmatized because he or she cannot afford to pay for school meals.  By prohibiting schools from refusing a meal as a form of disciplinary action or openly identifying a student who cannot pay or owes money, this important provision will also help to prevent hunger and allow students to focus on their studies.”

This April, Udall introduced bipartisan legislation to prohibit school “lunch shaming” – the practice of discriminating against or stigmatizing children who have outstanding credit or don't have enough money to pay for meals at school. Currently the legislation is co-sponsored by 13 members of the Senate and 77 members of the House. Original co-sponsors of the legislation include U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Penn.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), and U.S. Representative Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M).  The legislation also has the support of New Mexico Appleseed, Feeding America, Share our Strength, National PTA, Hunger Task Force, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Feed the Children, and others.

For some students, meal shaming stands between them and their only meal of the day. No child should ever have to go to the school cafeteria and be publicly humiliated because they cannot afford their lunch. According to a 2014 report by the USDA, nearly half of all school districts used some form of lunch shaming to compel parents to pay for child’s school meals. Often, students’ hot lunches are taken away and replaced with an alternative meal, such as a cold cheese sandwich. In other cases, children are forced to do chores in front of their peers, made to wear wristbands or handstamps declaring their inability to pay, or have their lunch thrown out as their friends and classmates look on. Unfortunately, stories continue to be told from across the country about practices of lunch shaming affecting students inside and out of school cafeterias.

In March of 2017, New Mexico passed the first law in the United States to prohibit lunch shaming. This legislation gained national attention and spurred a number of other states to pass legislation combating lunch shaming. Some of the states that passed legislation include: Maine, Virginia, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Texas, Iowa, Washington, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania; a variety of other state legislatures are currently considering measures to address this shameful practice. It is time that we put a stop to this draconian practice and ensure that students can focus on their studies.

Udall and Collins’ report language states: Lunch Shaming.—The Committee remains concerned with the practice of lunch shaming, when students with unpaid school meal fees are treated unfairly. The Committee directs the Secretary to provide additional guidance to program operators to address the ongoing issue of shaming school children for unpaid school lunch fees, including identifying approaches that protect children from public embarrassment; encouraging all communications about unpaid school lunch fees be directed to the parent or guardian, not the child; and encouraging schools to take additional steps to ensure that all students who qualify for free and reduced meals are efficiently enrolled to receive them.