A Minnesota lawmaker is pledging to renew efforts to block schools from shaming kids over unpaid lunch debts after he learned this week that Richfield High School cafeteria workers took hot meals from students and threw them away.
The lunches were tossed because the students owed $15 or more, but the action was quickly halted Monday when administrators became aware of the situation.
“Unfortunately, this was not implemented in line with our guidelines or our values,” the district said in a statement Monday. “We deeply regret our actions today and the embarrassment that it caused several of our students.”
State Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, said Wednesday he was glad the district apologized but was frustrated such incidents continue to occur — this despite a 2014 law that says schools could not “demean or stigmatize” students while reminding them of debts.
His bill would make clear that when meals are given, they cannot be withdrawn. In addition, the state’s education commissioner would be granted enforcement authority in cases when students are not served meals respectfully under the proposal.
The legislation is sponsored by Woodbury DFLer Susan Kent in the Senate and advanced from the House floor this year. But it did not survive House-Senate conference committee deliberations.
“If we need to tweak it a bit to get it across the finish line, I’m willing to do it,” Jurgens said.
Moves to strengthen state law have the support of Jessica Webster, attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, who on Tuesday tweeted: “Lunch shaming is a national conversation & it’s time for our Legislature to be more clear about these practices.”
In 2017, the Stewartville school district in southern Minnesota came under fire for in-your-face, tray-scraping tactics.
This spring, Valerie Castile, mother of police shooting victim Philando Castile, brought attention to the issue by covering $8,000 in school lunch debts for seniors at Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope.
Richfield’s statement noted that the district had more than $19,669 in unpaid lunch bills, adding that several parents and community members had expressed interest in helping to pay them off.
The district provided a link to its Sunshine Meal Account and included an option to donate through its Give to the Max Day page. As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, $4,465 had been raised from 33 donors.