Skip to main content

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.

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."

Related:

New app keeps kids from going hungry this summer

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.

Next Up

Screen Shot 2022-10-02 at 7.18.52 PM

Rolled semi, livestock on freeway interchange in Woodbury

Traffic cameras showed what appeared to be hogs on the side of the road.

Eric Reinbold

Reinbold guilty of murdering wife with 'particular cruelty'

Eric Reinbold, 46, was convicted of two counts of murder in the second degree in Pennington County Friday.

police tape

Armed assault suspect arrested after standoff in Waite Park

The standoff ended early Saturday when officer obtained a warrant for the home.

Screen Shot 2022-10-02 at 9.06.25 AM

3 dead after plane crashes into house in Hermantown

Two people in the house were uninjured.

FeDh7pUWAAg3NMd

Destructive fire at Maple Grove greenhouse and nursery

The fire burned early Sunday morning at a longtime Maple Grove greenhouse and nursery.

st. cloud state university hockey

SCSU player hospitalized after being taken off ice on stretcher

Luedtke was checked into the boards in the first period and down for a reported 10-15 minutes.

Amber alert wisconsin

Amber Alert in Wisconsin: Search for missing 15-year-old girl

Police believe 15-year-old Kryssy King may be with a 22-year-old man.

Screen Shot 2022-10-01 at 10.18.12 AM

3 St. Paul fast food restaurants robbed in space of an hour

The thieves struck between 7:15 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Screen Shot 2022-10-01 at 9.06.40 AM

What to do with the Kmart site? Minneapolis wants your ideas

The project will connect Nicollet Avenue south of Lake street and north of the Midtown Greenway, reestablishing a street grid.

Screen Shot 2022-10-01 at 7.53.55 AM

Crowd evacuated at end of homecoming football game in Brooklyn Park

Police blamed 'unruly teens' in the stands and some who were trying to enter the stadium.

Related

Stewartville changed its school lunch policy that opened the door for 'lunch shaming'

Stewartville had enacted new rules that opened the door for "lunch shaming" students.

Students shamed for outstanding lunch debt at Richfield High School

The students had their hot meals thrown away and replaced with a cold alternative.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders chimes in after Richfield students shamed for lunch debt

Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar proposed a bill in October to provide free meals to students across the country.

A middle school is renamed after a Minnesota icon (but it's not Prince)

Students at Ramsey started an effort to rename their middle school – and this week they achieved their goal.

A middle school is renamed after a Minnesota icon (but it's not Prince)

Students at Ramsey started an effort to rename their middle school – and this week they achieved their goal.

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.

'Sanctuary' communities won't get DOJ money, so will MN be affected?

None of Minnesota's communities consider themselves "sanctuary" – though a few step closer to it than others.

St. Olaf: School president signs terms after days of student protests

Students had been protesting after a note that said, "One less n----r that this school has to deal with," had been found on someone's car.