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'Pulling trays': Dayton seeks $3.5M to pay for low-income student lunches

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Gov. Mark Dayton is urging lawmakers to find an extra $3.5 million in state money to pay for low-income student lunches.

The action comes amid an uproar over a report that says many Minnesota school district policies deny students hot lunch if they can't afford to pay or kept their accounts current.

At issue, in particular, are about 62,000 students statewide who qualify for reduced-priced lunches, which means they are required to pay 40 cents and the state covers the rest, the Star Tribune notes.

The organization Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid last year surveyed the state's 330 public school districts about their lunch policies, and the group got 309 responses. Of those, 46 reported that they will deny a student lunch if they cannot come up with their lunch money – including the low-income students who don't have their 40 cents, the group's report found. Another 165 districts offer a less nutritious alternative, like a cheese or peanut butter sandwich.

The report notes that districts in some cases humiliate students, sometimes by offering butter sandwiches, or stamping students' hands with the words "LUNCH" or "MONEY" as a reminder.

The report says that one district policy notes, “Lunch trays will be pulled from a student if there is not enough money in the account. We do not enjoy pulling trays from students and it slows the lines for other students trying to get through.”

In the wake of the report, Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius fired off a letter Monday to district superintendents, reminding them that, for too many students, school lunch is the only real meal they get, and that proper nutrition is key to learning.

"Like me, I know that none of you would deny a child a nutritious lunch intentionally. I am hoping you will speak with your Food Service Directors regarding this information and find ways to ensure children are never turned away from receiving a hot meal," Cassellius told the district leaders.

In a statement, Dayton on Tuesday said he planned to include $3.5 million in his supplemental budget so that no student will ever be denied a hot lunch. “We cannot expect our students to succeed on an empty stomach. I look forward to working with the legislature to make this issue a priority in the upcoming legislative session, and fully fund the bill authored by Sen. Jeff Hayden and Rep. Yvonne Selcer,” the governor said.

The report noted that the issue of pulling trays is all too familiar in Minnesota – and not unique to Utah, where last month a district drew national attention for yanking lunch trays from low-income students even after they had their food.

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