STEWARTVILLE, MINN. — A Stewartville School District cafeteria worker quit her job this week after saying the district glossed over its handling of unpaid student lunch debts by not disclosing who told cashiers to scrape food off the trays of students who couldn’t pay.
Billie Dexter, who worked three days a week at the cafeteria that serves middle and high school students, said cafeteria staff threw out dozens of entrees after taking them back if students couldn’t pay, a violation of state law.
“They need to stick up for what they did,” said Dexter, speaking of school district leaders. “They shamed the cashiers and they shamed the kids.”
Dexter’s lingering anger over what happened was echoed by school parent Jill Haggerty, who said the district didn’t fully address the bullying that went on in the cafeteria when students were turned down for a hot lunch.
Addressing a wave of negative publicity over the practice, the Stewartville school board on Monday voted unanimously to stop taking food off students’ trays and instead provide hot meals to all regardless of their ability to pay.
Board chairman Rob Mathias said the policy change and the board’s apology at the meeting should have put the matter to rest. He said it’s possible that the problem arose from a miscommunication between the board and Taher Inc., the school’s food service vendor.
“To me it’s not that important,” he said. “We took responsibility for it. We’re moving forward.”
Superintendent Belinda Selfors said Friday she didn’t know who made the decision to pull food off students’ trays. She said in a statement that no students had meals taken away from them and that no meals were thrown out.
Dexter, the former lunchroom worker, said it’s true no student had their entire meal thrown out, but many had the hot entree portion of their meal removed from their tray.
Dexter said two cashiers who worked with her in the cafeteria told her they removed 88 entrees from students’ trays one day and 55 the next. (Selfors said a report from the cashier’s software shows they sold 27 “alternative” lunches of a cold sandwich to students who were not allowed to take a hot entree.) The food was set on a tray next to the cash register and then thrown out later, she said. Some students reacted angrily and shouted at the cashiers, said Dexter.
“It was terrible for them,” she said.
The practice went into effect shortly after the Stewartville school board passed a new lunch policy on Nov. 1 that was meant to recoup some $11,000 in unpaid lunch balances for the 2,081-student district, located about 100 miles south of the Twin Cities. Food service costs, according to the district’s most recent audit, exceeded revenue by $22,763 in 2017.
A 2014 state law prohibits demeaning students over unpaid lunch debts, and when the Stewartville story was picked up by a local TV station, two nonprofits and a state legislator held a news conference at the Capitol to decry the school’s practices.
State Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said it might be time to put teeth into the law.
Dexter, who also works as a bartender and waitress, said she plans to search for another part-time job to replace the income she’ll lose from her cafeteria work.