The lunchroom is an aspect of school that some remember fondly, a place for friendships to be formed, dates to be asked out for prom, or potential food fights to be averted. However for many others, the lunchroom experience is one of shame, humiliation and at best, a cold cheese sandwich.
This is the practice of lunch shaming — when a child can’t pay a school lunch bill, the school will hold the child publically accountable, meaning they make the student mop floors, wear wristbands identifying them as not able to pay or simply throw the food away in front of the student. This is a practice that must end in Texas, and New Mexico has finally paved a way to a solution.
It’s no secret that school lunch is vitally important to students. On average in the U.S., 50 percent of public school students are on free or reduced lunch, which mirrors Texas’ rate of just under 50 percent.
For many kids, school lunch accounts for almost half of the food that they will eat that day. However, there is still fear of being looked down on for using any sort of assistance program and receiving a “free meal.” Part of this fear is based off the fact that children who are on any meal assistance programs are often separated through hand stamps or tokens.
This essentially puts a large neon sign blinking “poor” above the child’s head, which allows bullies and other kids to pick on these children and further ostracizes them.
Most families will often try to pay for their children’s lunches themselves, but if a child’s family owes more than $25, the child does not get the meal that every other child would receive that day and every day past that point until the debt is paid.
At best, they will get a cold hamburger bun with a slice of cheese and a carton of milk. At worst, the meal they were just handed will be thrown away in front of them — all because of something that these children have no control over.
New Mexico has finally come up with a way to solve these issues. They have made it illegal to shame or highlight a child for having to be on any sort of food assistance programs, regardless of whether the school is public or private.
The law requires that each child gets the same meal, no matter how much assistance the child receives. Each child will receive a hot meal, no different from any other student.
It will be the administration’s responsibility to make sure that any child who may be eligible for any sort of free or reduced lunch is enrolled in the program, and any outstanding debts are negotiated between the parents or guardians of the children and the school. This allows children to do what they do best — be children. They can concentrate on learning and the social development of school, rather than the hunger pains that follow them throughout the day if they go without food.
New Mexico is making strides to feed its children. It is time Texas does the same. It’s time Texas lawmakers do something to ensure that all forms of lunch shaming ends.
While there are laws in Texas that allow for a grace period for children whose families owe money, that grace period is determined by the school and is often not necessarily followed. Our state’s children shouldn’t be punished for their families’ inability to pay a bill. Texas needs to follow New Mexico’s example and make sure that every child is fed while in school.
Dana Larson is a graduate student in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.
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