You're holding a tray with a hot, nutritious school lunch.
Where should it go?
Into the trash?
Or into the hungry kid who can't pay for it?
Richfield High School dumped dozens of lunches in the trash this week, taking food away from any student whose family had fallen more than $15 behind on their meal payments. The mortified students were sent away with something colder and cheaper to eat.
We read these lunch-shaming stories and we recoil. Lawmakers rewrite laws, schools rewrite policies, and Minnesotans donate to pay down lunchroom debts.
Then it happens again. And again. And again.
In 2017, cashiers scraped more than 100 hot entrees off trays and into the trash in Stewartville, Minn., in the span of two days.
An elementary school in Isle, Minn., sent students home in September with a warning: Ojibwe children wouldn't be given milk until the tribe resolved a billing dispute.
When lunch shaming makes the news, after a collective cringe, Minnesotans rush to help.
Thursday was Give to the Max Day. The community poured more than $12,000 into Richfield schools to pay down part of the district's nearly $20,000 lunchroom debt.
Seniors at Robbinsdale Cooper High in New Hope graduated free of lunchroom debt this spring, thanks to an $8,000 donation from foundation set up in memory of Philando Castile, a St. Paul school cafeteria worker who was killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop. His mother, Valerie, used the settlement from the case to honor her son, who used to dig into his own pockets when children came up short in his lunch line. The unpaid cafeteria tab across Robbinsdale Area Schools has soared past $300,000.
We don't make children buy the textbook before they can read. We don't make them chip in for gas for the school bus. But we let the price of lunch drive schools into debt and families into the cross hairs of collection agencies.
"These are adult problems, and these need to be worked out among the adults," said state Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, who co-authored a bill last session intended to strengthen the lunch-shaming statute.
Like other wholesome, bipartisan bills with broad support, it fell into the end-of-session blender and died. Kent and state Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, plan to try again next session.
Five years ago, most of the school districts in the state had lunch-shaming policies. Kids who couldn't pay ate butter sandwiches, or nothing at all, after they watched their hot lunch vanish into the garbage bin. They got sent back to class with stamps on their hands for everyone to see.
After a scathing 2014 report from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, state lawmakers made a bipartisan push to expand the low-income free lunch program to children on the reduced-price lunch program as well.
Legal Aid's most recent survey found that just 13% of districts still had policies on the books that call for "alternative meals" for students who can't pay their bills.
"Most schools are not doing this anymore," said Jessica Webster, staff attorney for Legal Aid's Legal Services Advocacy Project. Or at least, she added, they're "not putting it in their written policies."
New policies aren't helping with old debts. Legal Aid found that 155 of the districts it surveyed were running meal deficits — some topped six figures.
The simplest solution — picking up the tab for every student — is the priciest. The Minnesota Department of Education estimates that universal school lunch would carry a price tag of about $150 million. That could be a tough sell in a Legislature that struggled to pass the economical "don't throw perfectly good food in the garbage" bill into law this year.
Or the state could expand the free lunch program to more families. Oregon recently decided to make school lunches free for families at higher incomes — starting around $63,000 for a family of three. California has a new law that simply says that any kid who asks for a hot meal, gets a hot meal.
Minnesota needs to fix school lunch.
Minnesota needs to let the kids eat while we figure it out.
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