Downgrading a student's lunch because of insufficient funds isn't legal, according to a new opinion issued by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.

Minnesota lawmakers banned lunch shaming with a law that took effect in July 2021. But Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid surveyed more than 330 Minnesota school districts earlier this year and found 124 policies that seemed to violate the new law. Ellison's judgement comes after Legal Aid asked the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to investigate and consult the attorney general.

Under Minnesota law, the commissioner of education can request a formal opinion from the attorney general on any law-related questions pertaining to public schools, according to a MDE news release on Friday. Once issued, the attorney general's opinion is binding unless a court rules otherwise and it takes effect immediately.

"Minnesota law is clear: Students whose families are struggling to afford their lives cannot be denied a regular school lunch or offered a substandard alternate meal in place of a regular lunch," Ellison said in the release. "That practice is another form of 'lunch shaming' that is an affront to the dignity of those students and is not allowed under the law."

An alternate meal brings negative attention, leading to a student being clearly identified by peers and stigmatizing the student, Ellison wrote in his opinion. He also questioned if providing the same spartan meal every day for as long as a meal debt stands would follow federal nutrition requirements.

MDE notified school districts to implement a policy that allows all students to be offered the same meals regardless of unpaid debt.

"This is an important step forward for our students and our families," Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said in the release. "Differential treatment, lunch shaming or otherwise demeaning or stigmatizing the student for unpaid meal balances must not continue. We will continue to work to ensure all schools have the resources so all children have access to free meals while at school."

In addition to legislation saying schools could not demean or stigmatize students over unpaid lunch debts, districts also are prohibited from limiting student participation in graduation ceremonies, field trips or other extracurricular activities over unpaid debts.