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Minnesota

No more shame at school lunch

Editor’s note: editorial represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently of the newsroom.

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Minnesota took a big, positive step in 2021 to end lunch shaming, the practice of denying a child lunch or offering a substandard meal because they owe school. Back then, federal funds from the pandemic helped ensure all children had a wholesome, nutritious lunch.

It wasn’t the first time the state had tried to end this degrading practice. In 2014, Minnesota was among the first states to enact a law against lunch shaming. Still, some schools continued degrading practices, including dumping hot lunches in front of hungry students, substituting a downgraded lunch, or forcing children to withdraw written notes reminding parents of the lunch debt.

When the state tried again in 2021, it came back with a more specific bill that said, “A [school] who receives school lunch assistance under this section must provide lunch free of charge and may not deny school lunch to any participating student who is entitled to free or discounted meals, whether or not such student has an outstanding balance in the student’s meal account to a la carte shopping or for other reasons.” During the pandemic, schools also received special federal funding to feed students, but that ended in June.

Now that school districts are back on their own, too many have reverted to previous practices in violation of state law. Luckily, Mid-Minnesota’s Legal Aid, which has been fighting this fight for years, has found that more than 100 school districts have policies that still have cafeterias serving downgraded meals — typically the dreaded cold cheese sandwich — for students whose Parents or guardians owe money. In examining more than 330 school districts, Legal Aid found 124 policies that appeared to violate either the spirit or the letter of the new state ban.

The survey found that some districts still consider refusing a meal as an option. Others don’t allow their classmates to share their lunch with the less fortunate “due to health and sanitation reasons.” One district in the southeast went so far as to withhold milk from morning snacks for first-graders if they owed money for lunch.

It is shocking that such practices are still practiced, especially in a state that has an estimated $9 billion budget surplus. Schools may struggle to meet the budget, but surely there are other places to save without withholding milk from 6-year-olds?

After learning that such practices were ongoing, Attorney General Keith Ellison recently took action and issued a formal statement clarifying that school districts are prohibited from serving a substandard meal to students whose parents have unpaid debts.

“This practice is deeply stigmatizing,” Ellison told an editorial writer. “Children can be cruel about things like that. We know this causes children to withdraw or even lash out. It directly affects performance and can disrupt school. Some students don’t even go to the canteen because they’d rather skip it altogether than have the shame lunch.”

For those who think, “Well, why don’t the parents just pay off their lunch debt,” it’s often not that simple. The Minnesota school population includes children from across the social spectrum, from those living in stable homes to the thousands of children who are homeless; Children living with one or two parents to those dependent on a relative, foster parent or even a court-appointed guardian. Children are uniquely helpless in financial matters, dependent on those around them.

Ellison remarked, “I don’t think you’re dealing with a lot of dead parents. … But in any case, that’s between the school and the parents. There is no point in taking it out on the child.”

Once a formal opinion has been issued by the Attorney General, it is legally binding, unless a court determines otherwise, and takes effect immediately.

“We’ve researched this thoroughly and the law is very clear,” Ellison said. “No regular school lunch can be denied to students whose families are fighting for their lives. You must not be offered inferior food. It’s just not allowed by law.”

The Minnesota Department of Education has notified school districts that they must provide the same meals to all students, whether or not a family’s lunch account is in arrears.

It is high time that schools and the state clarified this. We recognize that meal debt can mount up for individual schools, but the pandemic has proven that universal school meals are not impossible. A nation and state as generous as ours has no excuse for denying children the food they need to get them through a day of school.

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