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Some families are racing to pay off lunch debts before the school year ends

There's a campaign to raise donations to cover lunch debts in the Anoka-Hennepin district, which refers overdue accounts to collection agencies.

Families in Minnesota's biggest school district are getting help from a crowdfunding campaign as they try to pay off overdue lunch accounts by the end of the school year.

The GoFundMe campaign for the Anoka-Hennepin school district was organized by Indivisible North Metro. But it's a local attempt to put a bandage on a problem that's common around Minnesota – and around the country, for that matter.

Just before schools took their December holiday breaks, there were donation campaigns in the Twin Cities to help thousands of families cover unpaid lunch expenses.

The problem's not going away, though. Instead it's sparking discussions about how school districts should handle it.

'Lunch shaming'

In many school districts if a child reaches the end of the lunch line and a school employee discovers their account is overdrawn, the kid's tray of hot food will be taken away and they'll instead be given a bag lunch containing a cold cheese sandwich. Or at some schools they won't be given any substitute lunch.

Classmates, of course, see this happening. CNN Money last week compared the phenomenon of "school lunch shaming" to being branded with a scarlet letter.

In northwestern Minnesota, though, it was a green dollar sign that caused a disturbance. It was stamped on the hand of a Fergus Falls student who did not have enough money in her account to cover the cost of her hot lunch.

The district's business manager tells Valley News Live the student was still served her lunch and the stamp was meant as a signal to the adults at home. But her grandfather told the station the girl tried immediately – and unsuccessfully – to wash off the ink and felt stigmatized by the whole thing.

What should schools do?

Schools find themselves in a tough spot on this issue. The School Nutrition Association, a national non-profit group, says schools are doing what they can to eliminate embarrassment and stigma at mealtime, but the expense of unpaid meal debt is a growing financial problem for districts.

The association says federal subsidies for school lunch programs have not kept up with the cost of providing the meals.

The Anoka-Hennepin district refers lunch accounts that are 60 days overdue to a collection agency if no payment plan has been arranged, MPR News reports. "It's not very responsible to our community to keep ringing up and racking up debt," the district's child nutrition director told the network.

But as concern about lunch shaming grows, one state has made it illegal to treat students with meal debt any differently than other kids. New Mexico passed a "Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights" last month.

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