NHI Alumni Michael Padilla lauded for school lunch law passage
As a New Mexico state senator, National Hispanic Institute Alumni Michael Padilla has put his National Hispanic Institute experience (particularly, his LDZ experience) to use. Thanks to a recent bill of his that became New Mexico law earlier this week, people around the nation (and even in other countries) have taken notice.
Padilla introduced a bill titled the “Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act,” which requires that all New Mexico K-12 students — including those who receive free or reduced school lunches — have access to the same lunch. The new law specifically targets discriminatory, shaming practices; as National Public Radio noted in its coverage, it “ends practices like trashing lunches that have been served to students who can’t pay, or making students do chores to work off debt.”
The law was introduced, in part, because of the “lunch shaming” that Padilla, now 44, experienced in his childhood. He recounted for a story running on the Today Show and on the NBC News website, “In 2017, we’re taking hot lunches out of a child’s hands and throwing it away.” In that story, Padilla recalled his memories of growing up in foster care in New Mexico. Sometimes, lunch would be taken away from him; sometimes, his lunch was replaced by bread and cheese; sometimes, he would have to work in the cafeteria to “pay off” the lunch he couldn’t afford. He’s learned, in recent year, that lunch shaming practices have continued across the nation, including a practice where students who can’t afford lunch on a particular day have “I need lunch money” stamped on their arms, and have to go through the entire day literally marked as being different.
The new law, which also received media attention from National Public Radio and the New York Times, as well as media from Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, and Austrailia, may inspire other states to create similar legislation. Padilla says that legislators in all of the other 49 states have contacted him about his efforts, and Texas and California are currently considering passing similar laws in their state legislatures.
He notes while the law helps guide those who are eligible for free and reduced lunches through the application process required to get those lunches, and thereby protects the school from people who might want to take advantage, what’s particularly important to him — especially in a state where significant numbers of people are in poverty — is that kids get fed so they can learn. “This is a way to take the focus off of their stomachs and onto their studies,” he said, adding that for some of the students, their families are so impoverished that school provides them their only square meal of the day.
Padilla, who was named a 2011 Distinguished Alumni by NHI — while he was preparing his first state senate run — credits his LDZ experience (as Lieutenant Governor of the 1988 New Mexico LDZ, and in 1989 as a Secretary of State for both Texas and New Mexico’s LDZ) for helping him learn how to become an effective legislator. He’s particularly proud that this bill, passed into law in bipartisan fashion was on the short end of the one to five year spectrum it typically takes for a bill to move from its initial introduction to passage.
“LDZ was one of the first times I was treated like anyone else who was there,” he recalled. “It was about the skill and the ability to communicate, and the leadership ability you could demonstrate. It was different from what I’d experienced in my young life up to that point.”