Some Minnesota children go to school hungry and leave even hungrier.
A majority of public school districts in this state deny hot lunch - or any lunch at all in some cases - to children who can't pay for them. Some schools take the meals from students in the lunch line and dump them in the trash when the computer shows a deficit in their lunch accounts.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius on Monday called the report "troubling," and fired off a letter to district superintendents.
"Like me, I know that none of you would deny a child a nutritious lunch intentionally," she wrote. "I am hoping you will speak with your food service directors regarding this information and find ways to ensure children are never turned away from receiving a hot meal."
About 62,000 low-income children and teens take part in Minnesota's reduced-price lunch program. That should mean that for 40 cents, they get a hot, nutritious lunch, with the remainder of the cost covered by public funds. But if students fail to come up with even 40 cents, some schools respond by denying or downgrading students' lunches, as Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid discovered when it surveyed 309 public school districts.
Some school districts send students home with a verbal warning for their parents or a hand stamp visible to all that says "LUNCH" or "MONEY." Others hand children a bread-and-butter sandwich and carton of milk in lieu of a hot lunch.
In a survey released Monday, 46 Minnesota school districts told Legal Aid that they immediately or eventually refuse to feed students who have insufficient funds in their lunch accounts. More than half the districts in the state - 166 of them - provide an alternative meal, typically a cold cheese sandwich, once the money runs out. Another 96 school districts, including the Minneapolis public schools, provide a hot lunch regardless of a child's ability to pay.
Students qualify for free lunch if their family makes less than about $25,000. After that they qualify for reduced-price lunch if their family makes less than $36,131. Above that, students must pay full price - an average of $10 per week per student.
A school in Utah made national headlines last month for throwing lunches in the trash if students couldn't pay. The headline of Legal Aid's report on Monday: "It's Not Just Utah."
"Lunch trays will be pulled" Despite Casellius' admonitions, it may take more than a letter from the state to change things. In some districts, lunch denial is intentional - a written mandate approved by school administrators or school boards. "Lunch trays will be pulled from a student if there is not enough money in the account," officials in Anoka County's St. Francis School District wrote in a notice to parents of students in grades six through 12. "We do not enjoy pulling trays from students and it slows the lines for other students trying to get through."
St. Francis Superintendent Edward Saxton did not respond on Monday to calls for comment. A full-price lunch in the district costs $2.20 for students in grades K-5 and $2.40 for students in grades six through 12.
The Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial School District's official lunch policy states: "Once the lunch account is at a zero balance there will be a grace period for 2 days. After that the student will need to bring a sack lunch. The student will be allowed to eat hot lunch again when they have a positive balance in their meal account."
Marshall public schools switch students over to cheese sandwiches when they run out of money in their accounts. If the account remains in deficit, the student will continue to receive sandwiches, but their parents may be referred to a collection agency and social services "for possible neglect."
"No reduced-price eligible child is turned away from a meal," Marshall Schools Superintendent Klint Willert wrote in response to Legal Aid's data practices request. He did not respond to an interview request from the Star Tribune. "The child will be given something to eat."
This is the second time Legal Aid has surveyed school lunch policies. The number of districts guaranteeing a hot lunch has increased since the initial survey in 2012, but so has the number of districts turning students away as school costs increase and budgets shrink.
"They have budgetary pressures and they have new federal mandates for healthy foods, [and] food has gotten more expensive," said Jessica Webster, staff attorney for Legal Aid's Legal Services Advocacy Project, which conducted the survey with support from the group Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. "Many just see this as a parental responsibility. Some districts don't see refusing to serve food as turning children away. They say, 'We give you a cheese sandwich for three days and then it's your parents' responsibility.' "
Cassellius, however, urged schools to find a way to guarantee a hot lunch for any student who needs one, regardless of their parents' ability or willingness to pay.
"As you know, for too many of our children, school meals may be the only nutritious meals they receive," she wrote. "We also know that children learn best when they have nutritious meals throughout their days."
The state could expand the free lunch program to all students who now receive reduced-price lunch for an estimated $3.35 million. The Legislature debated such an expansion last session, but the proposal failed to make its way into the education budget bill. Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, is preparing to push the bill again this year.