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Many Minnesota students are subjected to lunch refusals, including ‘tray pulls’

Almost 70 percent of Minnesota school districts either refuse to serve kids whose lunch accounts are in the red or substitute a less nutritious cold lunch.

school lunch
Forty-six Minnesota school districts, or 15 percent, refuse to serve students with deficits in their lunch accounts.

Think Minnesota school cafeteria workers, unlike their cruel Utah counterparts, would never throw out lunches served to kids who can’t pay?

Think again. Almost 70 percent of Minnesota school districts either refuse to serve kids whose lunch accounts are in the red or substitute a less nutritious cold lunch, according to a survey [PDF] conducted by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

Forty-six districts, or 15 percent, refuse to serve students with deficits in their lunch accounts. Most allow a few meals on credit. Metro area districts that cut students off include Stillwater, Mahtomedi, Inver Grove Heights and Osseo.

A few have a policy of doing what the Utah cafeteria workers did, taking away a student’s lunch tray and dumping it in the trash in front of them and their classmates. A few only refuse to serve middle- and high-school students.

‘Tray pulls’ defended by some

The report did not single out the districts that conduct “tray pulls,” but did offer a selection of quotes from survey responses defending the practice. One said it was an attempt to teach students to be accountable, others placed responsibility on parents.

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“Lunch trays will be pulled from a student if there is not enough money in the account,” said one. “We do not enjoy pulling trays from students and it slows the lines for other students trying to get through.”

More than half offer an alternative meal, usually a cheese or peanut butter sandwich. A few reported serving butter sandwiches. St. Paul Public Schools is among the 166 districts, or 54 percent, that supply a cold meal.

Many of the districts acknowledge that the practices shame and embarrass kids from low-income families, the Legal Aid report notes, yet have not taken steps to guarantee them a hot lunch.

Bill would extend free lunches to more

The upcoming legislative session will be the sixth in which Legal Aid and its partner MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger will push a bill that would make lunch free for the 61,000 Minnesota students who are eligible for reduced-price lunches. They are most at risk of going hungry because their families often struggle to pay.

Over the last two years, MAZON has built a coalition [PDF] of 35 community groups and faith-based organizations that plan to be active in pushing lawmakers to adopt the measure.

It’s true that schools are hard-pressed to persuade all of the parents who are able to pay to keep student accounts current, said Harold Kravitz, MAZON’s national board chair and senior rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka.

“We’re sympathetic,” said Kravitz. “But what’s really problematic is when you’re trying to collect from families that are already in that subsidized category. It puts kids in the middle.

“When you give a kid a different lunch, everyone knows who the poor kids are,” he added. “These stories of schools acting on their policies of dumping lunches — it’s appalling.”

Minneapolis and Anoka-Hennepin are among the 97 districts that guarantee a full lunch to low-income children, regardless of the balance of their account. In addition, Minneapolis offers free breakfast to all kids, regardless of income.

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“Several districts expressed a concern that a healthy school lunch may be the only meal the child eats for the remainder of the day,” the survey reported. “One school district described other districts’ practices of providing alternative meals and turning away children as ‘unconscionable bullying.’”

Twenty-one school districts did not respond to Legal Aid’s requests for information.

Message from commissioner

Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius Monday sent a link to the report to every district superintendent in the state, along with a strongly worded cover letter announcing that the full list of districts was being sent to lawmakers and news media.

“Like me, I know that none of you would deny a child a nutritious lunch intentionally,” Cassellius 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.”

Right now, more than 250,000 Minnesota students whose families subsist on 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals at school. A family of four qualifies at $30,650.

But tens of thousands more kids whose families earn 185 percent of the poverty level or less — $43,568 for a family of four — are eligible for subsidies that reduce the cost of a hot lunch to 40 cents. The administrative expense associated with trying to collect the money is often higher than the fee itself.

Extending free lunch statewide to students eligible for reduced-price meals would cost $3.35 million a year, said Jessica Webster, the Legal Aid staff attorney who put together the survey with MAZON’s support.

“It doesn’t entirely solve the problem but it offers some protection to the lowest-income kids,” she said. “We really want schools to revisit these policies that are causing shame and embarrassment.”

‘No Child Turned Away’

The legislation, dubbed No Child Turned Away, will be sponsored this year by in the state House of Representatives by Yvonne Selcer of Minnetonka and in the Senate by Minneapolis’ Jeff Hayden. Both are DFLers.

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In the past the bill has enjoyed strong bipartisan support, although earlier versions were opposed by some school systems as an unfunded mandate, according to Kravitz. While MAZON and its coalition partners understand there’s a long line of needy agencies that are hoping for new money in a nonbudget year, not funding the lunch program would be foolish, he said.

“We know that kids who are hungry find it hard to learn,” said Kravitz. “We think this is a moral issue for the community.”