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

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.

“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.

“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.

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.”

Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 02/11/2014 - 10:56 am.

    Words Fail Me

    They truly do.

    Can someone please–using not bureaucratic legalese b.s.–but honest language, why it is even remotely fair to punish the child for the transgressions of the parents?

    I’d be very curious to hear their twisted justifications for such a practice.

  2. Submitted by Misty Martin on 02/11/2014 - 11:34 am.

    students subjected to “tray pulls”

    I think it is a crying shame for hungry children to have to witness perfectly good food being dumped into the garbage over something they have no control over – whether or not their parents or guardians have paid their lunch bill. Wouldn’t it be better to let the children eat the lunches rather than wasting food? What kind of lesson is this? I sincerely pray that our educators will seek a better way to collect on overdue luncheon bills than taking it out on innocent children who probably come to school hungry and go to bed at night hungry as well.

    • Submitted by Joanne Simons on 02/12/2014 - 12:10 pm.

      Food dumping is shaming, mocking

      The lesson in lunch staff dumping out the food is about power, mocking, shaming. Lunch should be a time to relax, refuel, and connect with friends. Too often school lunchrooms are hugely stressful. At my daughter’s elementary school, lunch staff constantly blew whistles — supposedly to signal when the kids got too loud. Of course it was loud. The room was a box, an echo chamber with not one soft surface to absorb sound. So the lunch staff added to the racket with whistles. I blame administration though. Where were they to stop the ridiculous, horrible whistles? Where are they when children are mocked by adults who throw out their lunches in front of them or getting a cheese sandwich?

  3. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 02/11/2014 - 12:02 pm.

    Too bad for the kids…

    …but I really think this is the parents’ responsibility to not let it happen. In my district, 281, we get regular emails when the lunch account starts to get down low. It is up to me to respond and send my kids to school with a check for the next couple of months. If I were in the subsidized group I’m sure I’d get the same email warnings. At that point, if I’m broke, it is up to me to pack a lunch or give my kids a heads up. The comment above that is is appalling that everyone will know who the poor kids are supposes that it is shameful to be poor. I don’t think so. Maybe the rich kids need some sensitivity training, maybe the school could work out a better way to handle it. But I would guess that the largest percentage of these situations is due to parents who are too busy or distracted or too uncaring that they let their kids get embarrassed in the lunch line. I’ve eaten cheese sandwiches. I would count a free cheese sandwich and milk as a nice compromise.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/11/2014 - 12:54 pm.

      Everyone has e-mail accounts?

      Dude, think about this. Furthermore, you got a problem with a parent, since its soooo easy to contact the parent… take it out on the parent. Withholding food is just as immoral as withholding health care, specially when it’s withheld from students.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/11/2014 - 05:28 pm.

      Public shaming

      I can see no circumstance in which public shaming of the student is justified, no matter what the root cause of the situation or the economic level of the student’s family.

      If a child arrives at the end of the line with a tray that can’t be paid for, what’s wrong with (quietly) letting the child know that they can take their tray today, but that they cannot do so on any subsequent days until the lunch account has been replenished.

      And if dealing with this at the end of the line is administratively inconvenient (slows down the line, too hard to inform the student quietly, etc) then that’s a *systemic* problem with the PROCESS. Think outside the box. How about taking payment at the HEAD of the line instead (these are fixed price lunches, right?). That way, a child whose account hasn’t been loaded to cover the cost will simply pick up his or her alternative meal instead. Quietly and without fanfare. And let the discussions that should be taking place between the adults take place between the adults. Leave the kids and the shaming out of it.

      This really shouldn’t be that hard to figure out . . . . . . .

  4. Submitted by Presley Martin on 02/11/2014 - 12:18 pm.

    Other factors

    This really is ‘unconscionable bullying.’ I wanted to comment on my families experience here in Minneapolis. First we were basically forced to fill out the lunch form with our income, the district says funding is based on these?
    But the part that really got me was about halfway through the year we started getting robo calls saying we had an unpaid balance on our child’s lunch account. That’s weird because I make her lunch every morning, she’s never bought a school lunch. I had to call to get it cleared-up. But it makes me wonder how many kids are suffering because of clerical errors on the districts part, I’m sure we weren’t an isolated case.

  5. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/11/2014 - 12:29 pm.

    L.A. Bound

    Those hungry kids should start telling us that Los Angeles has offered to give them free lunches if they move there.

    It worked for the Wilfs.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/11/2014 - 12:46 pm.

    Intergenerational equity

    I like Frank Phelan’s comment best, but beyond that, unless we’re talking about a 16-year-old who’s the sole support of his/her family (which suggests a lengthy list of other problems), this is about school districts visiting, if you will, the sins of the parents onto their children.

    I think “unconscionable bullying” pretty much sums it up. I’m sympathetic to Bill Schletzer’s compromise, having eaten some cheese sandwiches myself, and if you’re poor, well… you’re poor. I’m guessing the other kids probably know that already unless it’s the first day of school. There’s no reason for a public entity that’s supposed to have the best interests of children at heart to put flashing neon signs over the head of every kid in the lunch line whose parents haven’t paid the bill. Offhand, I can’t devise a defense of tossing a child’s lunch into the trash that makes sense. Fiscally, ethically, nutritionally, educationally, the lesson being taught by this kind of ‘Oliver Twist” behavior is one that most of the adults in the room would rather children not learn, and especially not while still in elementary school.

    School district officials should be ashamed of themselves for permitting or encouraging this.

  7. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 02/11/2014 - 12:56 pm.

    Clarification please…

    Re: “Twenty-one school districts did not respond to Legal Aid’s requests for information…

    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.”

    While I applaud MN Ed Comm. Cassellius’s memo, encouraging a humanistic response to these daily dilemmas, I’m uncertain whether the twenty-one districts that didn’t respond are ever to be identified. I’m reasonably certain that if they failed to reply, they’ve got something to hide. ALL Minnesota School Districts should have their policies readily posted and available for public comment (criticism). If it’s really the $ these districts are worried about, I can jetison any number of overpaid staff with about a ten minute visit, with more than enough left-over. Money isn’t the issue. Money spent on children that could have been (better) dedicated to their pay/retirement/benefits/slush-fund/vacation, etc… always is.

  8. Submitted by bea sinna on 02/11/2014 - 01:17 pm.

    It’s child abuse!

  9. Submitted by Claude Ashe on 02/11/2014 - 01:17 pm.

    This article is frustrating in its lack of details

    Who exactly is having their lunch denied? Low income students who may not have another good meal that day or students who are not being responsible? The article doesn’t tell me and I think it’s a valid distinction. How exactly are the “trays being pulled”? Are there warning notes that go to the student/parents when the account is getting dangerously low or do they find out, on the spot, the moment they check out? The article doesn’t say and again, I think it’s valid.

    In addition, the article uses the highly charged and highly subjective word “subjected” in it’s headline. Great for click-throughs and indignant comments but is everyone really being “subjected” or are some just learning to do what adults need to do when we over-spend and get our card refused?

    The article paints strokes much too broadly for me to know what’s really happening.

  10. Submitted by Mark Kulda on 02/11/2014 - 03:34 pm.

    This could be handled so much better

    This is the kind of story that brings tears to my eyes when I think of some poor little first graders who have no control whatsoever over their financial situation having to go hungry when the food is plenty available. Taking it from them after they’ve picked it up from the counter and before they pay is just downright cruel. Shame on any school food service system that lets this happen. Collection efforts can be improved, maybe more funding can be allocated and maybe there could be some fundraising that would help.

  11. Submitted by Patricia May on 02/11/2014 - 05:12 pm.

    This needs to stop!

    It is NOT only low income students who are refused lunch. ANY student who takes a tray and does not have enough money in his account, will have to forfeit his lunch. Once the food is touched, it cannot be resold. The kitchen loses money on that tray of food, regardless if it is eaten or thrown away. In the district that I’m familiar with, the food trays that are pulled are donated to charity, along with all the food that was not sold. Once the school cooks and prepares the food, their cost is the same, NO MATTER WHO ENDS UP EATING IT! Throwing the food in the garbage won’t do anything to change the school’s profit or loss. So, why would they give the food to a shelter (which houses ADULTS) but NOT to their own hungry students (children)? The humiliation is inexcusable, and some of the cafeteria employees I know of will pay for the child’s lunch from their own pocket before they would ever participate in this brutality and take his food away from him.

  12. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 02/11/2014 - 06:28 pm.

    It is going to get worse.

    Food stamps are getting cut so there will be less food at home and now we can’t see our way for the kids to have some food. We are turning into a heartless society when we feel if serves our political needs to punish kids by withholding food. Cut their food and then wonder why their test scores are not so good. Voters better sit up and start paying attention to the politicians who want to continually work the system in their very self-centered favor.

  13. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/11/2014 - 06:49 pm.

    Just another examaple

    of how bureaucrats and educrats aren’t paid to think. They’re paid to blindly carry out some other bureaucrat’s written policies. We see it every day.

    We never had this problem back in the dark ages when you had to pay for your lunch with cash. Checking your pockets before going through the lunch line saved many kids from being disappointed, I’m sure.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/12/2014 - 06:16 am.

      Rose Colored Glasses

      To think that back in the Glory Days kids weren’t hungry in school in is naive beyond belief.

      The school lunch program started after WWII, when the (then honestly named) War Department found it had to reject far too many men from service because they had suffered from malnourishment while growing up. It was a national defense issue.

      It’s tough to learn when your stomach is growling all day, and spending thousands to educate a child and not spending a few dollars to make sure that kid isn’t hungry and can learn is fiscally irresponsible.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/12/2014 - 12:16 pm.

        Make a sandwich

        Make your kid a peanut butter sandwich so you don’t have to worry about whether or not other people are being “fiscally irresponsible” by not giving your kid a free lunch.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/12/2014 - 07:48 am.

      Ahhh, yes…

      the “Dark Ages”…when you walked miles to school in waist deep snow, uphill both ways, gnawing on sticks for sustenance. Food is for wimps….

  14. Submitted by Presley Martin on 02/12/2014 - 11:05 am.

    Local example

    This is a great example of why there are starving people in the world. It’s not for lack of food, it’s petty political fighting and poor distribution.

  15. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 02/16/2014 - 10:04 am.

    Running like a business

    This is a logical (and repellant) extension of the movement to run government more like a business and to make sure my tax dollars do not possibly benefit “the undeserving.”

  16. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/16/2014 - 09:07 pm.

    Does it bother anyone

    That almost 40% of our school age children are from poor families?

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/17/2014 - 07:38 am.


      if congress hadn’t spent the last five years trying to sabotage the economy because of their irrational hatred of the President….

  17. Submitted by Misty Chavez on 11/20/2015 - 07:03 pm.

    Poor children

    Can the school district get away with firing someone who refuses to take a childs tray away and allows them to eat anyway. I do not believe in embarrassing children like that. Help me please

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