If a child can’t afford a hot school lunch, the state of Minnesota should pick up the tab, Gov. Mark Dayton said.

More than half the school districts in Minnesota deny a hot lunch — or any lunch at all — to students with no money in their school lunch accounts. That’s likely to change, after swift and fierce public backlash to a report by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid that found schools throwing lunches in the trash, feeding students alternative lunches of cold cheese or butter sandwiches, or sending them home with “LUNCH” or “MONEY” reminders stamped on the backs of their hands.

“No child in Minnesota should be denied a healthy lunch,” Dayton said in a statement issued Tuesday from the Mayo Clinic, where he is recovering from hip surgery. “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.”

Dayton pledged to include $3.5 million in his supplemental budget request “to ensure that no Minnesota student is denied access to a hot meal at lunchtime.” Legislative leaders, who return to session at the end of the month, have similarly vowed to make lunch funding a priority.

School districts were doing ­damage control as well.

Anoka County’s St. Francis School District immediately suspended its practice of pulling hot food trays from students in the lunch line when they can’t pay.

“I understand people are very upset about it. I don’t blame them. Our board is, too,” interim St. Francis Superintendent Troy Ferguson said. “I will try to look at this as an opportunity to make a positive change.”

The policy was rarely enforced, he said, and applied only to those high schoolers who were not part of the reduced-price lunch program. Students who reached the cash register without enough money would be given a chance to ask their friends for a loan. If they still couldn’t come up with the money, their tray would be pulled and the student would be given milk and either a piece of fruit or a vegetable for lunch. This happens maybe six times a year, Ferguson said, with the last incident occurring sometime before Christmas.

That practice stops today, he said. The board will address the issue at its next meeting.

Policy misinterpreted?

Osseo’s schools, the largest of the 46 districts that immediately or eventually cut off lunches to students with deficits in their lunch accounts, said its policy was misinterpreted.

When a child’s account balance goes in the red, the school provides an alternate lunch, consisting of a sandwich, fruit and milk for at least the next three days, district spokeswoman Barb Olson said.

“We want to reassure ­people we do not deny children lunch,” said Olson, who could not explain why students were given an alternative to a hot lunch. “We aim to keep courtesy meals to three. When students exceed those numbers, we engage in problems solving.”

With more than 21,000 students, Osseo is the fifth-largest district in the state. Osseo school board Chairwoman Teresa Lunt said the board likely will review its practices but said she had never heard any complaints or any reports of children going without lunch until the report came out.

“Certainly I don’t personally believe withholding food from children is the right thing to do,” Lunt said. “I know we have a process in place.”

About 62,000 low-income children and teens take part in Minnesota’s reduced-price lunch program, paying 40 cents for a hot, nutritious lunch, with the remainder of the cost covered by public funds. It would cost an estimated $3.5 million to expand the state’s free lunch program to all of them.

At the Legislature

Several bills at the Legislature last session called for such an expansion, but most weren’t backed by necessary funding. Passage would have meant an unfunded mandate, to be paid for by schools.

Late in the session, House Republicans worked to include funding for school lunches in the massive education budget bill. They would have covered the cost by defunding several DFL ­initiatives, including the new school antibullying “climate centers.” That measure failed.

“It disappoints me that House Democrats chose special interests and partisan politics over children,” amendment sponsor Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, said in a statement Tuesday. “I offered an amendment last year on the House floor that would have provided funding to ensure low-income children are not turned away from the lunch table for lack of payment. My amendment would have utilized funding from more bureaucracy — including a new climate center — to help ensure our students don’t go without a school lunch. Unfortunately, Democrats stood on the side of spending more taxpayer dollars in a government agency instead of taking the opportunity to ­support our children.”

Finding the money for school lunches should be much easier this year. The state is likely to have a $1 ­billion surplus for the rest of the budget cycle. Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said he will sponsor the bill in the Senate.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said funding school lunches will be “a very big priority. We’re going to include it in our budget.” Of students being denied lunch by their school, he said, “It just seems wrong.”