Kids whose families fall behind on school lunch payments should not be shamed over the money due, and districts employing hard-line tactics could run the risk of having state aid withheld from them, a state lawmaker said Tuesday.
Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said she is exploring ways to protect students from being stigmatized following a news report that a southern Minnesota school cafeteria worker was scooping food off the trays of children who owe money and dumping the lunches into a bucket as the students watched.
“It’s a school-sanctioned bullying of children,” Anderson said. “It’s not their fault.”
Three years ago, Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law a bipartisan effort to prohibit the demeaning of students over lunch debts. Recent developments suggest the public is squarely on the students’ side.
This fall, an online fundraiser honoring Philando Castile, the St. Paul cafeteria supervisor fatally shot by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016, was so successful that it’s expected to cover the debts this year of students across the St. Paul School District — not just at one elementary school, as initially planned.
Late last year, districts across the metro area saw negative balances erased following a popular tweet urging donations to school lunch accounts. In St. Paul’s case, that meant the clearing of more than $27,000 in debt, and for its students, a difference between a hot meal and a cheese sandwich.
Advocacy groups including Hunger Solutions Minnesota and Legal Services Advocacy Project mobilized anew on Tuesday after a KTTC TV report about the in-your-face tray-scraping occurring in the Stewartville School District. The groups held a State Capitol news conference attended by Anderson, and found state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius also issuing a statement echoing their concerns.
“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,” said Cassellius. She urged districts to cover the debts with reserve funds rather than shame children or deny them a meal.
Belinda Selfors, superintendent of the Stewartville Public Schools, did not reply to a request for comment.
Her district has faced criticism before for its approach to collecting lunch debts or preventing families from falling in arrears.
Three years ago, when another superintendent was in charge, a Stewartville couple spoke out against the district’s tactics after they said that their 8-year-old son had to wear a sticker on his shirt when his lunch balance fell under $8, according to a Rochester Post-Bulletin report. The boy’s father was quoted saying that his son came home crying after being teased by other students.
Jessica Webster, staff attorney for Legal Services Advocacy Project, said in a news release this week that a school lunch payment is a transaction between the district and a parent, and “kids shouldn’t be placed in the middle or ever fear being turned away from the lunch counter.”
The Stewartville district now has a community survey on its website — www.ssd.k12.mn.us — seeking ideas on how to “help preserve the dignity of the student whose family may have a negative lunch account balance.”
At the Capitol, Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, is calling for the state to provide every student a free lunch, while Anderson, who worked with Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, on the 2014 legislation, pondered how best to get the message across to school district leaders — even if it means holding back some funding.
“I thought we took care of this. I thought it was clear,” Anderson said. “I’m frustrated at this point. I’m looking for the right answer.”