The USDA is going to require that schools admit to lunch shaming, and it’s a big first step to ending the problem

Earlier this month, New Mexico made headlines for passing legislation to stop lunch shaming kids. Now, the USDA will require that schools admit to lunch shaming kids, making it a national requirement. It might not be the end of lunch shaming, but starting July 1st, the USDA will require that school districts have a policy in place for when kids can’t afford their meals at school.

The policies have to be in writing and sent to staff, parents, and the community. This is a a good first step, since it means that if stamping a kids arm is the policy and that makes you feel icky inside (it’s not a nice thing to do), you can protest the school district and fight for them to change it.

Schools have many different ways of handling kids who can’t afford lunch. Some schools give kids a plain cheese sandwich instead of a hot lunch. There are others, like that New Mexico school, that gives away a hot lunch, but uses stamps or wrist bracelets to mark the kids. The idea is that the parents will see the band and stamp and be reminded to write a check — but that’s not always true.

Sure, parents can be busy and distracted, but if they aren’t sending lunch money to school, it’s likely that they can’t afford it. Jennifer Ramo, who works with New Mexico Appleseed, an anti-hunger group, told NPR that she’s heard stories of schools giving a kid a tray of food and then having the cashier toss it out when they realized the kid didn’t  have money to pay. She said:

“We’re saying feed these children first, and let the grownups sort out the finances.”

Not only is denying a kid lunch, or giving them a cold cheese sammie, not all that healthy for the student (it’s hard to focus when your stomach’s growling), it also stigmatizes a child. If their family is having trouble paying for lunch, imagine what else they’re dealing with. School cafeteria’s are hard enough to navigate — being the kid with a big “I need lunch money” stamp on their hand makes it harder.

While schools and the USDA works on solving the problem, you can call a local school and ask to pay a student’s lunch balance.