The End of Lunch Shaming and the Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights Act: 5 Questions with Senator Michael Padilla

As a student, New Mexico senator Michael Padilla had to mop floors, clean tables, and set up chairs in order to receive his lunch. This type of “lunch shaming” is what New Mexico’s SB 374 or Hunger Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act seeks to eliminate from public schools.

Padilla received research and writing support from New Mexico Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that focuses on solving hunger, education and homelessness issues in New Mexico. Governor Susana Martinez signed the bill into law earlier this month which requires schools work with parents to pay lunch debts and register students for free & reduced price lunches in order to end the stigma Senator Padilla experienced.

Padilla spoke to CSG about his past, what this bill accomplishes, and momentum for similar legislation in other states.

Could you talk about the inspiration behind the bill?

In New Mexico we have a rampant problem with poverty across the state. As a legislator, I have always been looking for ways address the issue. I also grew up in extreme poverty. My sisters and I didn’t have much. So we experienced lunch shaming as children. We had to work in the cafeteria. We had to put up tables, clean them, set out the chairs for the other kids to eat. The schools we went to had three lunch lines. One was the full five-star lunch, the middle line was the free & reduced lunch, and if you didn’t have any money at all and no one was advocating for you to get on the free & reduced lunch program you were given a piece of bread and cheese.

What do you believe this legislation will achieve?

This legislation will remove lots of stigmatizing that goes on around kids who can’t afford lunch or pay their cafeteria debt. A 6 year old who might have debt in the lunch room has no power to resolve that. They can’t go out and get a job to pay those debts off. I want to get rid of the shaming these kids receive when the problem belongs to the parents. This legislation takes the focus off the child’s stomach and focuses it on their studies.

The second thing the legislation does is resets the motivation and the priorities of the food services directors to focus on what is happening with the child so they can move the child to the free & reduced lunch program which comes with federal subsidy. The legislation doesn’t change whether or not schools can chase down this debt while determining if the child is eligible for free and reduced lunch. If the child is eligible, then the school will receive more regular funding to provide lunches. The bill switches the impetus from the children on to the adults that actually have the power to do something about it. 

The third thing it does is change perceptions that the child may have about themselves. It gives the child the opportunity to be on a level playing field as their peers. And I believe that by doing that children are going to function and perform better in school.

What long-term impacts could this legislation have on New Mexico?

I see it as a mechanism to turn around the New Mexico economy. If we have improved graduation rates because children aren’t thinking about the hunger pains in their stomachs, they’re going to focus better and do better in their classroom work, and that will help improve our graduation rates.

The long-term benefits are producing a better, highly qualified work-force which is why I wanted to introduce the legislation.

What were some challenges you faced while developing this bill?

Initially the bill received some opposition in the Senate Committee. Folks thought this wasn’t a big issue. However, as the bill went through the committee process, I challenged my colleagues to call home to their districts and talk to the food services directors, principals, and parents. They were shocked to find out that this was going on in their district. After that we had wide bipartisan support.

Have you seen momentum in other states for similar legislation?

As it turns out this legislation has taken off around the world. I’ve received inquiries from 21 different states. Legislators want to know more about how they can implement the bill in their state. I know Texas, Colorado, and California have begun drafting similar legislation. I’m going to work with these legislators and help them, but I don’t know why we wouldn’t make this a law federally.

This is a first of its kind legislation. It shows New Mexico is leading the nation in terms of positively affecting child hunger. I have also received calls from news outlets in Mexico, Canada, Australia, Great Britain. We were just trying to solve a problem here in New Mexico, but we have found out that this is happening all over the country and all over the world.