November 21, 2017 07:13 PM
Several advocacy groups, including Hunger Solutions Minnesota, gathered at the State Capitol Tuesday morning to call for an end to so-called "lunch shaming" in the state's schools.
Their calls in 2014 led to new legislation, but a recent case in Southern Minnesota caught their attention and has them focused on closing loopholes.
With mounting meal debt, Stewartville Public Schools ushered in a new policy this month that would affect students with negative lunch balances. Basically, the hot lunches of those students would be thrown away and replaced with sandwiches. The district has since suspended the policy and asked for input from parents through an online survey.
The advocacy groups called on lawmakers to tighten the law's language so that students aren't potentially publicly humiliated in front of their peers.
Jessica Webster, a staff attorney for Legal Services Advocacy Project, argued those hot lunches are sometimes the only meal low-income students get on a given day.
"No child should ever be turned away with nothing at a lunch counter, they should never have a lunch dumped into a bucket in front of them," Webster said. "There should never be a circumstance in which a child is given an alternative meal as a shaming practice or an encouragement to get their parents to pay."
Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, said students in both suburban and urban communities deserve a healthy lunch, no matter how much money their parents have.
"There has to be some attention to tightening up the law to make sure there isn't alternative meals being offered to children, for instance, that are not the regular meal," Moriarty said. "I think that practice alone needs to end."
Metro-area lunch policies
In Stewartville, 76-year-old resident Jim Diderrich said that when he heard about at least one student's hot meal being taken away at the middle school, he was upset.
"To be shamed in front of all the other people that you go to school with is one of the most devastating things you can go through, and I’ll guarantee you that kid will not ever forget it," he said. Asked if he was speaking from experience, Diderrich said, "You bet."
"To me that’s unethical and immoral," said Stewartville business owner Stacy McConnell. "It’s bullying. That’s bullying the kid, and it’s not fair to them."
Superintendent of Stewartville schools Belinda Selfors confirms the incident happened, and says the district is now reviewing its new policy. She said the district has already made changes.
"Every student who wants to eat a school lunch is provided with a regular meal regardless of the balance in their lunch account and/or the ability to pay," she said.
The superintendent said a committee is meeting Tuesday evening to go over the policy.
She says there could be more tweaks, and the school board could look at it again Monday.
The current law states students will not be stigmatized when it comes to meal account balances, so already lawmakers from around the state have taken notice.
State Reps. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, and Nels Pierson, R-Stewartville, both support revisiting the law. Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, also weighed-in, calling for free school lunches for all of Minnesota's children.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius also released the following statement:
"Governor Dayton and I have fought hard to ensure students have nutritious meals and that they are not shamed or punished when their accounts fall short because their parents haven’t kept up payments. After Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid released their report in 2014, we worked with the Legislature to pass a law to address shaming tactics and fund the entire cost of meals for students who qualify for reduced-price lunch. Those new investments have helped ensure that about 65,000 Minnesota kids are certain to have a healthy, nutritious lunch – regardless of their families’ ability to pay.
"Unfortunately, it is clear we have more work to do.
"Taking food away from a child in front of their peers, or limiting their access to school activities or athletics over meal debt, is downright wrong – not to mention mean. It baffles me that educators would think otherwise. This is especially frustrating when many of our school districts have millions of dollars in their general education reserves, saved for a “rainy day.” These reserves are unspent funding that kids themselves generated each year, but were not spent on them. Therefore, it seems fair that this funding be used first to feed kids that need it, rather than shame them or deny them a meal.
"I am disappointed in my colleagues and school boards that continue to put these policies in place, and I thank the Legal Services Advocacy Project for their continued advocacy on this issue. I call on every school board member and superintendent to review their policies on lunch debt and fees to ensure all kids are treated fairly and have the same access to food as their wealthier peers, who often get a pass because the adults assume the parents will eventually pay."
Tyler Berg and Jessica Miles
Updated: November 21, 2017 07:13 PM
Created: November 21, 2017 12:31 PM
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