The state of New Mexico has passed historic legislation to ensure that no student is "shamed" because their parent or guardian has not paid their school lunch account.
The new law outlines debt-collection procedures for unpaid breakfasts and lunches at public, private and religious schools that accept federal funding for student meals.
"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 Ramos, an advocate of the bill and executive director of New Mexico Appleseed, an anti-poverty organization.
"No child should be forced to wipe down cafeteria tables or throw away a meal because of a debt," she said. In some schools, staff force children to clean tables in front of their peers to pay their bill. Other schools require cafeteria workers to throw away students' hot lunches when they cannot pay.
New Mexico has some of the highest poverty rates in the nation. In many school districts, children whose families did not pay for their meals have received a cold cheese sandwich. That practice prompted a backlash against many school districts.
In Alabama, Jon Bivens says an elementary school shamed his son by stamping "I need lunch money" on his hand. Bivens was unaware that his third-grader's account was running low but said he objected to the practice no matter the bill. "It's a form of bullying and shaming the kids," he said, "I don't care if my son has a $100 balance...I don't care. Send me a note home or an email."
Ramos says the New Mexico law aims to prevent student meal debt by automatically signing up low-income families for free meals if possible. It requires that schools serve every child a healthy meal and requires schools to contact families who owe. It also ends practices that embarrass children like throwing out meals or cleaning tables to pay.
Advocates say the new law is unprecedented. No other state, so far, has passed similar legislation.