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Rosenblum: Lunch-aid bill feeds an essential need

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM
  • Star Tribune
  • February 21, 2013 - 2:33 PM

Betty White knows we’re not ourselves when we’re hungry. Not that Snickers are the answer.

That’s why it’s essential for our legislators to pass the School Lunch Aid bill, moving now through both houses. The $3.5 million bill would waive the 40-cents-a-meal cost for kids who fall into the “reduced-lunch” category, allowing them to eat their important midday meal for free.

Kids can’t think if they’re hungry. They also can’t focus on an upcoming algebra test if they’ve just been humiliated with a hand stamp in the lunch line or, worse, by having their food tray dumped in the trash due to a parent’s inability to pay.

Wouldn’t happen here? But it has.

“Horrified,” is the word Jessica Webster uses to describe her reaction when she first got wind of this reality five years ago. That’s when Webster, a staff attorney for St. Paul-based Legal Aid, learned that many of Minnesota’s low-income kids were being turned away in the lunch line or being shamed.

“We drafted a bill that said you couldn’t do that,” Webster said. The bill went nowhere, mainly because nobody believed her stories. In 2011, Legal Aid, partnering with four Minneapolis law firms, conducted a school lunch survey of 182 school districts. Among their findings:

• 30 Minnesota school districts have some form of “turn-away” policy, ranging from allowing the child a limited number of hot meals before stopping, to turning even the youngest grade-schoolers away immediately.

• Seven districts stamp children’s hands as a deterrent to nonpayment. One district issues a “red card” after four unpaid lunches, while another issues “purple tickets” for nonpayers.

• One district brings a child into the kitchen where the hot lunch is taken away and exchanged for a bag lunch. Another takes the lunch tray away at the end of the line.

• Diplomas are being withheld from some nonpaying high school seniors. Bill collectors are going after some of their parents.

Sick to your stomach yet? I am.

Fortunately, many school districts provide unlimited hot meals to children, regardless of their ability to pay, including Minneapolis, Anoka-Hennepin, Robbinsdale, Brainerd and Delano. St. Paul is among the districts that offer kids a cheese or peanut butter sandwich. Others have “Angel Funds” to forgive debts.

And bless the many principals, teachers, school social workers and other staff members who share their own lunches or reach into their bottom drawer for a juice box and granola bar, at least.

But they shouldn’t have to do it.

Inclusion in the proposed lunch waiver is not out of line with other food assistance programs. Families who qualify for reduced-price lunches earn an annual income of just over $42,000 for a family of four; to qualify for free lunches, the family income cutoff is just under $30,000.

While 40 cents a day for lunch may seem like nothing to many of us, pediatrician Diana Cutts emphasized that these are not families who will find that money in their couch cushions.

“Families who are just above poverty are really struggling the most,” said Cutts, assistant chief of pediatrics at Hennepin County Medical Center and who specializes in food insecurity and hunger. She testified in support of the bill Feb. 13.

These families, she said, “are trading the most in terms of medical care and housing security. To say that those who can’t pay are uncaring is so false.”

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, agrees. “Sometimes, people have trouble looking through someone else’s lens,” said Hayden, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Forty cents becomes a couple of dollars a week, which becomes $40, and you’re coming up short on food at home and medicine. I know what it’s like to be in poverty.”

After no luck getting a hearing for two years, Webster of Legal Aid is buoyed by the growing number of “cracker-jack” supporters pushing for passage inside and outside of the Legislature. DFL bill sponsors include Sen. John Hoffman of Champlin, and Reps. Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids and Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley.

In addition, the Mazon Advocacy Project, a national Jewish hunger-relief organization with strong local roots, has prioritized getting the bill passed. Mazon’s national organizer, Samuel Chu, flew in from Los Angeles to testify last week. “We are already seeing the impact of having an organized constituency, beyond the professional advocates pushing for policies in this area,” Chu said.

Newton, too, is “very hopeful” about the bill’s passage this year. “We heard unbelievable testimony,” he said, “and we have some bipartisan support. We think it’s manageable.”

Webster hopes he’s right. “It’s been five years,” she said. Five years of kids being turned away or shamed in a place they’re supposed to feel safe. “Every year I think, how can this be happening?”

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com, 612-673-7350

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