All students will get a hot lunch in the Stewartville School District even if they can't pay for it, after the school board voted Monday to overturn a policy that denied students a hot meal if their lunch accounts were overdue.
A media report earlier this month that a student who couldn't pay had food taken off a lunch tray and thrown in the trash by a cafeteria employee brought widespread condemnation. Advocacy groups held a State Capitol news conference, and a state lawmaker said the district shouldn't be in the business of shaming students over their parents' debts.
School Board Chairman Rob Mathias said the new policy will allow students to accrue a negative balance, unlike the former policy in which students were given a cold sandwich rather than a hot meal if they owed money.
The district will work with families that don't pay their lunch bills, Mathias said, and may send the accounts to collectors if they reach a balance of negative $75 or more.
Mathias said he's still not sure that a cafeteria worker ever threw a student's lunch into the trash — the story was told secondhand to a local television station and never confirmed directly with school officials, he said. A review of what happened at the school is underway, Mathias added.
The Stewartville school district said some 680 families owed about $11,000 on overdue lunch accounts. It costs about $450 a year to provide each student with hot lunch, according to the district's website.
Mathias said a GoFundMe fundraiser and a donation from a local business will cover the district's costs for now. The district may have to reassess its budget to cover the costs of lunch going forward, he said.
"I believe that most if not all school districts are always pinching pennies to try to educate children because the state of Minnesota does not provide the adequate funding that is needed," he said.
State Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, was among those calling on Stewartville to stop demeaning students over unpaid lunch debts. On Tuesday, she said she was glad to hear the policy had been changed.
Anderson said she's spoken with other legislators and the head of the state Department of Education about amending the 2014 state law on school lunches to add penalties for districts that don't comply with efforts to prohibit the demeaning of students over lunch debts, perhaps by withholding state funding. "I would hope that we don't have to go that route," she said.
Anderson said state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius may simply send out an annual notice reminding districts of the state's position on lunch programs.
Told of Mathias' comment that the Stewartville school district struggles to find the money necessary for the school lunch program, Anderson said the Legislature in 2014 provided additional funds for schools to help them meet their lunch obligations. "I'm happy to look through a school district's budget and make some suggestions of where to prioritize some funding," she said.