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Pulaski County anti-lunch shaming bill sets example for US, helps students' mental health

At the end of last school year, PCSSD's nutrition debt was under 5000 dollars. Now 3 months after enacting this new bill, it's up to 77 thousand.

PULASKI COUNTY, ARKANSAS, Ark. — Imagine being a child again, back in school, and you have to wear a wristband that shows your family can't afford lunch. Even worse, imagine going hungry because you were refused a hot meal while your classmates pick and choose what they want. 

This type of lunch shaming was banned in Arkansas in this spring's legislative session and the rest of the country noticed. 

More than half of the 12 thousand students in the Pulaski County Special School District eat free and reduced school lunches. 

Pulaski County Special School District Executive Director of Communications Jessica Duff said with this bill now in effect, more students are actually eating those meals.

"No matter what, every child is fed, whether it's breakfast or lunch, we make sure every child receives a meal," she said. 

In Washington, Congress is only a few steps away from passing Sen. Collins (R-ME) anti-lunch shaming bill.

Duff said PCSSD implemented this bill in its schools around the district this year. 

"At no point will a child be isolated and pointed out for either participating in free or reduced lunch or having an unpaid balance," she said. 

The bill bans obvious markers, like wristbands, as well as the refusal of meals for being unable to pay. 

Nihit Kumar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UAMS, said lunch shaming leaves lasting impacts on children. 

"It can affect their self-esteem, it can affect how they perceive themselves and create a false perception of how other people might perceive them," he said. 

Duff said PCSSD is already noticing changes and they're showing up on the balance sheet.

"I don't really think we realized how fast it would grow," she said. 

Duff said at the end of last school year, Pulaski County Special School District's nutrition debt was under five thousand dollars. Now, three months after enacting this new bill, it is up to 77 thousand dollars. 

"So we are going to try to work on communication with the parents, just to let them know you need to check your kids' balance," she said. 

Administrators believe this new way of handling lunch payments will benefit students, by protecting them from what Kumar calls the toxic effects of shame.

"So you're really in a sense trying to do something to a child, with no fault of their own," he said. 

Kumar said the anti-lunch shaming bill helps students both in and out of the classroom. 

Duff said she hopes families in need will see this, and think about completing that application for free or reduced lunch.