Minnesota schools deny lunches, too

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A school in Utah recently earned headlines and outrage when staff seized and threw away the lunch trays of students whose meal accounts were empty. Students were sent away embarrassed and hungry. Now it’s our turn to be embarrassed, because many Minnesota schools do the very same thing.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid recently surveyed every school district in Minnesota to ask, “What are your district’s school lunch policies and/or practices when a reduced-price eligible child comes to the lunch counter without adequate funds?”

The results might upset you. Only 31 percent of Minnesota school districts guarantee that low-income children will still get a complete, hot meal even if their lunch accounts are empty or overdrawn. 54 percent of districts take away a student’s hot lunch and replace it with something less nutritious (and quite conspicuous), most commonly milk and a cheese or peanut-butter sandwich.

The remaining 15 percent of schools don’t guarantee any lunch at all to low-income children who can’t pay—and yes, they sometimes take and dump trays right in front of the children. (Policies varied as to how far a student’s account could be overdrawn before they stop receiving any lunches and whether elementary students were exempt from this.) Among these no-lunch districts are some of the state’s largest, including Osseo.

I grew up in the Osseo school district, which is incredibly economically diverse. I sat in class with students who lived in lakeside mini-mansions and with students who lived in Section 8 housing. I’m horrified to realize that some of my classmates (and perhaps even my friends) weren’t allowed to eat anything at all for lunch when their family budgets got too tight.

I refuse to blame my fellow students for being hungry, but some Minnesota schools apparently do. To quote the report, “One district justified its tray pulling policy as a way of teaching children accountability and responsibility. Many districts absolve themselves of responsibility for ensuring children do not go hungry, claiming that parents are the ultimate decision makers on whether their child eats.”

Let’s unpack those assumptions. Reduced-price lunches cost students up to 40 cents each, which adds up to $20-25 a month for three students. $25: that’s a half-tank of gas to get to work, or winter boots so your children are allowed outside for recess. When you need to budget for every penny, those 40-cent lunches add up. (A family of four participating in reduced-price meals can have an income of up to $3,631 a month.) And even if a parent can pay, but forgets, why should an innocent child be allowed to go hungry at school?

Of course, no one relishes taking away a student’s lunch. No one wants to harm children. But that’s exactly what these policies do: harm children. Students who don’t get an adequate meal slow down the entire classroom’s progress and might even be disruptive. Worse yet, these children might be going home to empty refrigerators. School is one place where we can ensure that all children have nutritious, filling meals. Schools are community institutions, and their students are community assets. We’re all guilty for abdicating our responsibility to these children.

This responsibility shouldn’t be left up to individual school districts, with their tight budgets and wide variation in policies. An ideal solution would be one that helps all Minnesota children, such as state funding to either give all reduced-price families free lunches, or to at least fill in the gaps when families can’t pay. Minnesota can, and should, do better by its children.