Minnesota students that owe lunch money are still facing 'lunch shaming' from schools

A 2014 law was supposed to stop this from happening to students who owe lunch money.
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A student at an Arlington, Virginia, school.

A student at an Arlington, Virginia, school.

Put yourself back in your middle school cafeteria.

Backpack on, you and your friends amble to the back of the line, grab a tray, and move down the line to get food. A few of your buddies get through the checkout first – then you step up there and find out you owe money.

So the cafeteria worker takes the food off your tray, throws it in the bin, and plops a cold sandwich in its place. And you head to the lunch table to sit with your friends, who just saw an adult toss your food in the trash.

This is what's been happening in Stewartville Public Schools since a rule change went into effect Nov. 1, according to KTTC, which dives into how this policy was implemented and why

Minnesota however has a state law – passed in 2014 after similar stories from public schools emerged – that specifically bans this type of behavior from school workers.

The law says that schools, when reminding kids of overdue lunch money, can not "demean or stigmatize" the child in the process. The Legislature that year also approved more funding to make sure students could get a meal, even if they couldn't afford it.

So what the heck happened here?

State lawmakers seem a little confused by that.

"We passed legislation to specifically demand that schools do not demean or stigmatize students whose school lunch fund balance has run empty," said Rep. Sarah Anderson in a statement. Anderson, a Republican, added she wants to tighten the language in the law, possibly even withholding funds from schools that don't comply.

Rep. Nels Pierson, a Republican who represents the Stewartville area, said he supports Anderson's efforts, writing: "Through no fault of their own, these kids get set apart from their classmates, and put simply, that shouldn't happen."

And Rep. Paul Thissen, a DFLer, said the school district should immediately change its policy, and called on the state's Department of Education to clarify what can and can't happen. He argued schools "should not be singling children out because of some financial bar."

“School is challenging enough for growing kids; we really don’t need to separate and stigmatize a student because of something outside their control," he said, adding he wants the state to find a way to cover unpaid school lunch costs for all students. 

Stewartville has said it's got $10,000 in unpaid school lunch charges right now.

Governor, education commissioner weigh in

The lawmakers' bewilderment at the situation was matched by two top state officials.

"Taking food away from a child in front of their peers, or limiting their access to school activities or athletics over meal debt, is downright wrong – not to mention mean," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said in a statement. "It baffles me that educators would think otherwise."

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Referencing the 2014 funding boost, she said that new spending "helped ensure that about 65,000 Minnesota kids are certain to have a healthy, nutritious lunch – regardless of their families’ ability to pay.

"Unfortunately, it is clear we have more work to do," she added.

Gov. Mark Dayton was equally perplexed about Stewartville's policy.

“This defies good judgment and basic adult common sense," Dayton said, according to WCCO. "I mean, you just don’t humiliate students for factors that are outside of their control."

Earlier stories

What to do when students were behind on their lunch bill became a huge debate in the early months of 2014

That was after Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid published a study that found 15 percent of school districts in the state reported denying kids from getting food if they owed money.

And in a few districts the child – if they'd already picked up their lunch – had the tray taken away from them, and the food thrown in the garbage.

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.

Related:

Graduating class donates thousands of dollars to pay off other students' lunch accounts

In 2015, the Anoka-Hennepin school district hired a collections agency to recoup $160,000 in unpaid lunch fees.

More recently, people have turned to online fundraising campaigns to try to cover the costs – including in the Anoka-Hennepin district, and J.J. Hill Montessori in St. Paul where Philando Castile worked.

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