Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Minnesota took a big, positive step in 2021 to end "lunch shaming," the practice of depriving a child of lunch or offering a substandard meal because of school lunch debt. At the time, federal funds from the pandemic helped ensure that all children received a full, nutritious lunch.
It wasn't the first time the state tried to end this humiliating practice. In 2014, Minnesota was among the first states to pass a law to address lunch shaming. Nevertheless, some schools continued degrading practices that included dumping hot lunches in front of hungry students, substituting a downgraded lunch, or forcing children to take back written notes reminding parents about lunch debt.
In 2021, when the state tried again, it came back with a more specific bill that stated, "A [school] that receives school lunch aid under this section must make lunch available without charge and must not deny a school lunch to all participating students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, whether or not that student has an outstanding balance in the student's meals account attributable to a la carte purchases or for any other reason." During the pandemic, schools also received special federal funding to feed students, but that ended in June.
Now that school districts are back on their own, too many have reverted to past practices, even though they are breaking state law by doing so. Thankfully, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which has been fighting this battle for years, discovered that more than 100 school districts had policies that still have cafeterias serving downgraded meals — typically the dreaded cold-cheese sandwich — to students whose parents or guardians owe money. In surveying more than 330 school districts, Legal Aid found 124 policies that appeared to violate either the spirit or the letter of the state's new ban.
The survey found that some districts still hold refusal of a meal as an option. Others don't allow classmates to share their lunches with those less fortunate "for health and sanitation reasons." One southeastern district went so far as to withhold milk from first-graders' morning snacks if they owed lunch money.
It is shocking that such practices are still going on, particularly in a state that has a projected $9 billion budget surplus. Schools may struggle to meet budgets, but surely there are other places to economize without depriving 6-year-olds of milk?
After learning that such practices were ongoing, state Attorney General Keith Ellison recently took action, issuing a formal opinion that makes it clear that school districts are prohibited from serving a lower-quality meal to students whose parents have unpaid debt.
"This practice is deeply stigmatizing," Ellison told an editorial writer. "Children can be cruel about such things. We know this causes kids to withdraw or even to lash out. It directly impacts performance and can be disruptive to schools. Some students don't even go to the lunchroom because they would rather skip it entirely than get the shame lunch."
For those who think, "Well, why don't parents just pay their lunch debts," it's often not that easy. Minnesota's school population includes children from across the societal spectrum, from those living in stable homes to the thousands of children who are unsheltered; children living with one or two parents to those dependent on a relative, foster parent or even court-appointed guardian. Children are uniquely helpless when it comes to financial matters, dependent on those around them.
Ellison noted that, "I don't think you're dealing with a lot of deadbeat parents. ... But in any case, that's between the school and the parents. It does no good to take it out on the child."
By law, once a formal opinion is issued by the attorney general, it is binding unless a court rules otherwise, and takes effect immediately.
"We researched this thoroughly and the law is very clear," Ellison said. "Students whose families are struggling to afford their lives cannot be denied a regular school lunch. They cannot be offered a substandard meal. It is simply not allowed under the law."
The Minnesota Department of Education has notified school districts that they must offer the same meals to all students whether or not a family's lunch account is in arrears.
It is long past time for schools and the state to figure this out. We acknowledge that meal debts can mount up for individual schools, but the pandemic proved that universal school lunch is not impossible. A nation and state as bountiful as ours have no excuse for depriving children of the food they need to make it through a school day.