It's time to outlaw lunch shaming

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Story highlights

  • Tom Udall: In many schools, school officials are allowed to shame students whose parents haven't paid their lunch bill
  • The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, which was introduced in the Senate and House of Representatives earlier this year, would put an end to the practice, he writes

Tom Udall is the senior US senator from New Mexico.

(CNN)It's a practice so cruel, you probably never imagined it would happen. Yet in nearly half of all US school districts, school officials are allowed to punish students -- even withhold lunch -- because a parent or guardian has fallen behind on paying their child's school meal bill. The practice, known as "lunch shaming," publicly singles out these kids by forcing them to wear wristbands, assigning them chores, and even making a display of taking away a meal from them after it has been served.

As kids across the country head back to school this month, we should ensure they are focused on the new friends, classes, and challenges that come with a new school year -- but one of those challenges should not be dealing with humiliation at lunchtime. And that's why I'm taking steps to stop lunch shaming across the country.
Tom Udall
Instead of serving a practical purpose, lunch shaming is detrimental to students' wellbeing; it singles out students whose parents are unable to pay, stigmatizing the most vulnerable kids. Extra school chores take students away from schoolwork and classmates. And, worst of all, the practice can stand in the way of a child's only healthy meal of the day.
    We can't expect our kids to succeed in the classroom under those circumstances -- not when they're hungry and face public embarrassment at the hands of school officials.
    I am proud that my home state of New Mexico became the first in the country to outlaw this practice. New Mexico's Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights was drafted by a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers and champions for our kids, including one state senator who was a victim of lunch shaming himself; while growing up in foster care, he often was forced to work for his school meal.
    States and school districts should follow New Mexico's lead, but they have been slow to act. So I believe the time has come for the federal government to step in and do what it can to prevent the practice.
    Earlier this year, I led a bipartisan coalition in Congress and introduced the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act in the US Senate and US House of Representatives. The act would ban schools nationwide from using unconscionable public shaming tactics against children. It explicitly prohibits schools from forcing kids to wear wristbands or hand stamps, requiring chores, or throwing a child's meal away because their parent or guardian hasn't paid a school meal bill. It would also require schools to direct any communications about meal debt to the parent or guardian, and not to the child.
    In addition to the standalone bill, we have inserted a provision in the draft fiscal year 2018 funding bill for the Department of Agriculture that directs the Food and Nutrition Service to prevent shaming of school children for unpaid school meal fees.
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    These kids have done nothing wrong -- and they shouldn't be embarrassed in school because of a debt that they have no power to pay.
    Instead of shaming kids who come from struggling households, we should be working to find solutions to end childhood hunger and to support families in need. That's why the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act also aims to simplify and improve the process of applying for free and reduced-price lunches for families that need them. Every child who needs a school meal should get one -- even if they don't have the money to pay for it.
    In the United States, 13 million children live in households struggling with food insecurity. It's us -- those with power -- who should be ashamed of our failure to reduce that tragic statistic.
    Let's put an end to lunch shaming, once and for all. And let's devote our energy to building a future where every child can concentrate on learning -- without worrying about his or her next meal.