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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

"Lunch shaming" taken seriously in New Mexico

Staci Strobl

By Staci Strobl

My husband and I recently adopted a child in a public (Wisconsin) adoption.  Until all the court paperwork goes through, we are a foster family, and our son receives a free lunch at his new school while he is still a foster kid-- a benefit that goes away once we become the official guardians.  Upon enrolling him for the benefit, I immediately asked the school secretary how he would be identifying himself in the lunch line, ever conscious that being the new kid and the lunch benefit kid at the same time might be a set up for social stigmatization.

The administrator gasped at my question, and nearly shamed me for daring to bring up what was obviously (to her) a problem that was never going to arise.  All the children punched in a PIN code regardless of the source of their lunch funds.  I found myself thinking that perhaps being new to motherhood, I was carrying a bit too much baggage from the last time I interacted with an elementary school, in the 1980s as a school kid myself, and expecting the worst.

Alas, "lunch shaming" (the practice of treating a student receiving a free lunch differently than others)-- I found out later thanks to NPR-- is not a dead issue, at least not in New Mexico and perhaps many other places in the country. 

Practices around serving a child a government-sponsored free lunch long remains one that was stigmatizing and even punishing.  In some jurisdictions today, different, lower-quality food is served to those who couldn't afford to pay.  And, a couple years in Colorado, a cafeteria worker purportedly lost her job for giving a needy student a free lunch.  The New Mexico state senator sponsoring the anti-lunch-shaming bill recalled a childhood in which he had to mop the school cafeteria floors to earn his allegedly free lunch.

School lunch debt is another avenue of shame in some places.  Last year, a cafeteria worker in Pennsylvania quit her job because she was directed to not serve a hot lunch to a student whose family was $25 in debt to the school lunch program. A student in Arizona was stamped on the arm with a message that said "I need lunch money" after failing to have any in the lunch line.

New Mexico's Huger-Free School Children's Bill of Rights passed as law last week in New Mexico, the first state to outlaw this activity, though California tried).

This is good news for cracking down on a problem it appears I was not wrong to worry about.