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Bill would ban schools from practice of publicly singling out children — such as with wristbands or assigned chores — if they can't pay for school meals

Washington, D.C. - Today, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) joined his colleagues Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in introducing a bipartisan bill to prohibit schools from discriminating against or stigmatizing children who have outstanding credit or don't have enough money to pay for meals at school. U.S. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) led the House companion bill along with U.S. Representatives. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Rodney Davis (R-IL), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Bobby Scott (D-VA). The legislation, the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, would ban schools from singling out children — such as by requiring them to wear wristbands or hand stamps or do extra chores — because their parents have not paid their school meal bills.

In an effort to decrease school meal debt, some schools require cafeteria workers to take these steps and others — in some cases even throwing the child's meal away — rather than extending credit for meals. The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act prohibits these tactics by requiring schools to direct communications regarding meal debt to the parent, not the child. The bill also aims to make the process for applying for free and reduced price lunch applications simpler by expressing that it is the sense of Congress that schools should provide these applications more effectively to the families who need them, coordinate with other programs to ensure that homeless and foster children are enrolled for free meals, and set up online systems to make paying for meals easier for parents when possible.

Lunch shaming is a practice used in schools across the country, but New Mexico recently took strong steps to outlaw the practice. New Mexico's Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights is the first such state law in the nation.

"It is completely absurd that students would be shamed at school based on their inability to purchase food,” said Sen. Casey. “I am confident that this legislation will do its part to stop students suffering from humiliation for circumstances outside of their control. This is bullying and I am saddened that we have to write legislation to ensure it ends.” 

"Children who have no ability to pay their debts shouldn't be shamed, punished at school or even go hungry because their parents can't pay their school meal bills," Sen. Udall said. "Shaming students or requiring extra chores from kids who need help paying for lunch is inexcusable — not only does it stigmatize our most vulnerable children, it takes away from time they can be spending on schoolwork or with their peers. This meal shaming can sometimes stand in the way of students' only healthy meal of the day — we can't expect our kids to succeed in the classroom if they are hungry. I'm proud of New Mexico for being the first state to outlaw this harmful practice and will do everything I can in the Senate to pass this legislation 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."

“Child hunger is a serious problem facing New Mexico. We know that when children are hungry it impacts their ability to focus and learn in the classroom,” said Sen. Heinrich. “Stigmatizing or shaming students for not being able to afford lunch is unacceptable. Nothing is more important than improving the well-being of our children and I will continue to work to find solutions that ensure our students can grow and thrive.”

“No student should be humiliated in front of their peers because their parents can’t afford to pay for a meal," Rep. Lujan Grisham said. “It is shocking and shameful that this happens to hungry children, but nearly half of all school districts use some form of lunch shaming.  This bipartisan bill will put an end to these draconian practices and help ensure that students can focus on their studies without looking over their shoulder to see their friends pointing fingers.”

“No school in America should ever resort to shaming a child in order to force a low-income parent to pay a bill. From throwing food away in front of a child, to forcing a child to accept a less desirable, alternative lunch, schools are taking outrageous and immoral actions against America’s most vulnerable children,” said Rep. DeLauro. “Rather than shaming a child, schools should work directly with parents to find common sense solutions, like payment plans, to address the underlying issues. The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act is a strong step forward in addressing this issue and Congress should immediately pass the legislation to stop this widespread practice.”

“We want schools to work with parents, not target the student, to address outstanding lunch payments," said Rep. Davis. “This is an issue that should remain between the parents and the school. The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act prevents schools from using the student to address outstanding lunch payments and encourages them to develop processes that accomplish their goal without stigmatizing the child.”

"The humiliation inflicted on children who are late paying their school lunch bills — or don't have the means to pay those bills — is a national disgrace. I am proud that my home state of New Mexico passed legislation to end school lunch shaming earlier this year," said Rep. Luján. "Now it is time to remedy the problem on a national level and why I am proud to stand with my colleagues to introduce this important legislation."

“Hunger directly affects a child’s ability to learn, and no child should have to sacrifice that opportunity because of their family’s financial situation," Rep. Scott said. "The practice of ‘lunch shaming’ has no place in our schools and I am proud to support this legislation."