Social justice organizations are pressing lawmakers to offer free lunches to Minnesota students who can’t afford their own.
About 70 percent of school districts in the state either refuse to serve children with negative balances on their lunch accounts or substitute a less nutritious cold lunch, according to a survey by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.
The survey found that 46 districts, or 15 percent, refused to serve students with lunch account deficits, although most allowed some meals on credit, reported the MinnPost.
Others upheld a policy to take a student’s lunch tray away and dumped it into the trash in front of students and their classmates, as cafeteria workers did in highly publicized cases in Utah and elsewhere.
“Lunch trays will be pulled from a student if there is not enough money in the account,” one district official said in the survey. “We do not enjoy pulling trays from students and it slows the lines for other students trying to get through.”
Some districts refused to serve only middle- or high-school students and continued to feed younger children.
More than half of districts offer an alternative meal, which is usually a cheese or peanut butter sandwich – although some serve buttered bread.
School officials admitted the practice shames and embarrasses children from low-income families, the survey reported, but they haven’t done anything to guarantee hot lunches.
“When you give a kid a different lunch, everyone knows who the poor kids are,” said Harold Kravitz, national board chairman for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. “These stories of schools acting on their policies of dumping lunches — it’s appalling.”
Legal Aid and MAZON are pushing a bill to extend free lunches to 61,000 Minnesota students who are eligible for reduced-price meals.
The upcoming legislative session will be the sixth one that the groups have attempted to get the measure passed, and they’ve built a coalition of 35 community groups and faith-based organizations to press lawmakers to adopt the bill.
The legislation, No Child Turned Away, will be sponsored by a pair of lawmakers from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which operates effectively as the state’s Democratic Party.
The bill has enjoyed strong partisan support in the past, but previous measures have been opposed by some school districts as an unfunded mandate.
About 250,000 Minnesota students currently qualify for free lunches because their families subsist on 130 percent of the federal poverty level.
Tens of thousands more students qualify for 40-cent hot lunches because their families earn 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level – which is calculated at $43,568 for a family of four.
But the administrative expense of collecting the money is often higher than the fee itself.
Legal Aid said that extending free lunch statewide to students eligible for reduced-price meals would cost about $3.35 million per year.
“It doesn’t entirely solve the problem but it offers some protection to the lowest-income kids,” said Jessica Webster, the Legal Aid staff attorney. “We really want schools to revisit these policies that are causing shame and embarrassment.”
[Image: School children eat pizza for lunch (Flickr/Judy Baxter)]