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‘Tray pulling’ in school lunchrooms gets political

school lunch
On the table for the legislative session: school lunch policies.

Talk about the ability of a news cycle to set political gears in motion.

The release of a report showing that some 70 percent of Minnesota school districts refuse to serve hot lunches to kids whose accounts have deficits triggered a flurry of press releases, tweets and pointed fingers.

Rep. Yvonne Selcer
Sen. Jeff Hayden

Some vowed support for a bill being carried by Rep. Yvonne Selcer of Minnetonka and Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis, both DFLers, to extend free lunch to the 61,500 students who now pay 40 cents per meal. Others questioned why several bills to fully fund meals for students who qualify for reduced-price lunches or to ban schools from cutting them off failed in the 2013 session.

Last year three bills were introduced in each legislative chamber, as well as a pair that would have beefed up school nutrition programs overall by adding two cents per meal to the 12 cents the state now adds to federal food funding. None of the measures made it out of committee.

“Politics is funny,” tweeted Rep. Ryan Winkler, the Golden Valley DFLer who sponsored one of the 2013 bills. “A year ago it was hard to get people to pay attention to a bill stopping schools from pulling kids’ lunches.”

Rep. Ryan Winkler

Looks like that won’t be the case this year; both major political parties Tuesday stepped into the fray, insisting they were champions of the effort to end the practice of “tray pulling” — of taking hot meals from children at the end of the lunch line and dumping them in the trash.

Gov. Mark Dayton was first out of the gate with a statement promising to extend free lunch. “No child in Minnesota should be denied a healthy lunch,” Dayton said in an early afternoon statement. “We cannot expect our students to succeed on an empty stomach. I look forward to working with the legislature to make this issue a priority in the upcoming legislative session, and fully fund the bill authored by Sen. Jeff Hayden and Rep. Yvonne Selcer.

Selcer was quick to follow up with a press release expressing her thanks to the governor, while Hayden tweeted his appreciation.

Rep. Joe McDonald

Delano Republican Rep. Joe McDonald fired back, blaming the DFL for the death of last year’s legislation. “It disappoints me that House Democrats chose special interests and partisan politics over children,” he said. “I offered an amendment last year on the House floor that would have provided funding to ensure low-income children are not turned away from the lunch table for lack of payment.

“My amendment would have utilized funding from more bureaucracy — including a new climate center — to help ensure our students don’t go without a school lunch,” McDonald continued. “Unfortunately, Democrats stood on the side of spending more taxpayer dollars in a government agency instead of taking the opportunity to support our children.”

The whole truth is, of course, much more complicated and — given the heat generated by Tuesday’s headlines — fuzzy. The bills initially introduced had a number of sponsors from both parties. All met with resistance, either to including the $3.5 million tab on a long list of education-spending priorities or to require schools to provide meals the state would not completely subsidize.

Some of that resistance was political, some of it from the school nutrition services lobby, which characterized the efforts as an “unfunded mandate.”

Eleventh-hour attempts to simply ban the practice of denying a child a lunch failed despite strong GOP support, as did the anti-bullying bill that would have created the aforementioned climate center. A separate climate effort operated by the state Department of Public Safety did get funding, but the money cannot not be spent until the Safe Schools act is adopted. The Safe Schools act failed in the last hours of the session when the House GOPers threatened a filibuster.

Sen. Sean Nienow

Finally, last week Sen. Sean Nienow, the ranking minority member on the Senate Education Finance Committee, told MPR he had concerns about this year’s proposal to fix the lunch problem.

“The concern with that is number one, you’re completely disengaging families that theoretically at least have a fairly substantial ability to pay something,” said the Cambridge Republican. “If the problem is that we have one or two or 10 or 50 or 100 or 1,000 kids that have a parent that [isn’t] fulfilling their responsibility, well then let’s look at targeting the resources to fix that problem, and not spend it on all 60,000 kids.”

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 02/12/2014 - 11:11 am.

    First, Joe McDonald sure sounds like a typical politician playing partisan politics. Not impressive in the least. And why is this topic suddenly an issue? It’s been this way for a very long time. If a family can’t afford to provide their kid a $0.40 meal, how can they feed the same kid breakfast, or dinner? That price is so low already. Why not just make meals free for every kid while we’re at it??

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

    don’t do it

    The poor kids are already getting a free lunch. Those with a marginal income are getting subsidized to a good extent. The rest of us are on our own. Kids can bring a bag lunch from home too. In my district you send a check to school with the kid and they draw on that for milk and lunches and whatnot. When it starts dipping down I get regular emails to give me warning a couple weeks ahead of time to replenish the accounts (for two kids). Four days a week my kids pack a lunch and buy a milk. One day they get hot lunch which costs more than the lunches we can pack. If they start giving free lunches to the parents with no conscience or sense of responsibility, then why should my kids get anything but a free lunch? At least in district 281 the parents know that their kid will be trying to get a lunch when there is no money in the account. The parent had plenty of warning it was coming. They could send the kid to school with money or a sandwich. I think this problem is caused not by poor parents but by poor parenting. The school and the taxpayers have a right to get paid for the food.

    I’m not often over on the Republican side of things but this is just too much coddling to mitigate the effects of irresponsibility.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/12/2014 - 01:40 pm.


      So you would have the consequences of poor parenting (or a simple lapse of memory. I never received reminders about a low lunch account until it was already overdrawn) on the children, instead of on the parents.

      That’s a great way to teach responsibility.

      • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 02/13/2014 - 07:30 am.

        The kis are there to eat, not learn responsibility

        Responsibility is taught at home and this situation holds a perfect example, math is taught at school. I’m not debating free or subsidized lunches, which I support. Someone here said the kids are “scarred for life” by this. PLEASE! Really? The schools cover a simple lapse of memory. From what I’ve read the lunches aren’t denied until several reminders are given to the kid or the parent. It’s no longer a simple lapse in memory but a major lapse in responsibility. Besides many kids carry a lunch and are unscarred by the experience. If the parent is too unable to keep up with the lunchroom balance and the kid is too forgetful to remind them then carry a lunch. If I didn’t get the email reminders I get I’d put more burden on my kids to remind me. If they just kept forgetting, and in one case that is very possible, then if they got denied because they forgot to remind me I would offer that as a very real lesson in responsibility, actions and consequences.

        The only action by the school that sounds reasonable to me is that at the beginning of the year the school, in their student handbook, which in my district parents and students are responsible to obey, they set limits for how overdrawn they will allow lunch accounts to get. Then each family can make their own decisions on how to handle genuine lapses in memory or the cost of buying versus carrying. Then everyone knows up front what the clear rule is. Trouble starts when the rules are too fuzzy.

        Starting feeding the kids free lunches for irresponsible parenting? I can do that.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/12/2014 - 09:48 pm.

      Subsidized and Accountability

      FYI, all of the lunches are subsidized due to the farm bill. Just at different amounts.

      Regarding the “pulling” or substitution of lunches, I find it fascinating that so many people here are indignant regarding the school policies and politicians, however no one seems indignant that a parent would be so irresponsible as to put their child in that position.

      I really am not sure how we will close the academic achievement and other gaps if many in our society seem to want to let irresponsible parents off the hook. Embarrassing the child and/or feeding them PB & J’s may not be the answer, but if you are looking to give the kid’s a free pass I hope you support a way to hold the irresponsible Parents accountable.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 02/13/2014 - 07:37 am.

        What you find “fascinating”

        is that so many of us don’t attempt to portray all parents as irresponsible simply because the kids account ran dry….a situation that could happen for a variety of reasons that don’t include painting the parents of those kids as deadbeats. But considering that so many conservatives love to cast blame and dispersions on others in order to rationalize their ideology, I can’t say I’m surprised.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/13/2014 - 07:28 pm.

          Third Times the Charm

          It does feel a bit odd being the defender of Public School system and their personnel, while you cast blame and dispersions against them… Can we go back to our normal roles soon?

          That said, parents choose to have children and therefore the accountability for their care and education is theirs. Or at least it should be according to my ideology. Maybe I am old fashioned.

          How about we agree to let the kids keep eating, and send the police and/or social workers to visit the parents to determine if there are bigger issues that need to be addressed. I am guessing the parents wouldn’t forget to put money in the account again.

  3. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 02/12/2014 - 01:36 pm.

    Hungry kids can’t learn

    Not every household is as organized as Bill’s. Some children come from wildly dysfunctional environments and a school lunch may be the only warm, nutritious food they get all day.
    Worse even is the humiliation of a child whose tray is yanked away for lack of 40 cents. Not only does that leave the child hungry but it can attach stigma that further ruins the child’s school experience. (And throwing away the food is a disgusting waste of food and taxpayer money.)
    As to the question of why some children should get a free lunch while others don’t, I have three answers:
    1. Be thankful that you and your children have enough family function and enough income so that you can afford to pay.
    2. If we want to get people out of poverty, we have to start when they’re young and make sure they get a solid education. Hungry kids can’t learn.
    3. What kind of question is this — the thinking of Marie Antoinette? Maybe some people need to stay awake in church when the pastor gets to the part about feeding the hungry.

  4. Submitted by Maria Vasiliou on 02/12/2014 - 02:39 pm.

    How Could YOU? Who are YOU?

    In addition to the gnaw of hunger pains, there is the painful humiliation of pulling a tray out from under the student or worse yet, stamping their hand! All in front of peers. Even more egregious is the act of dumping the hot meal in the garbage.

    I’m am saddened, sickened, appalled, and in complete and utter disbelief that YOU – administrator, school board, Republican, Democrat, Independent, lunch room supervisors, lobbyists – could find any justification whatsoever in doing this to a child. And as for the explanation from some districts that it was “a misunderstanding of the policy”, where is your common sense? No matter what you thought the policy said, do you really think it meant punishing/humiliating a child just for being hungry?


  5. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 02/14/2014 - 04:46 pm.

    How do you do that Sen. Nienow?

    “If the problem is that we have one or two or 10 or 50 or 100 or 1,000 kids that have a parent that [isn’t] fulfilling their responsibility, well then let’s look at targeting the resources to fix that problem, and not spend it on all 60,000 kids.” So there’s some magic formula making every parent be both responsible and able to pay for school lunches? Taking their children’s trays away and throwing the food in the trash might scar children for life, and that wasn’t enough incentive. Should their pants be pulled down too? How about throwing rocks through their windows with notes attached calling them deadbeats, will that work? Or maybe we can avoid humiliation at school by sending someone to the child’s home to watch the parents refill the lunch account? I wonder what that would cost and how that will go over with the small government types. Or we could spend what crank billionaires spend on an a medium advertising buy to make sure every kid got fed. Didn’t Republicans once value efficiency in government?

  6. Submitted by jason myron on 02/12/2014 - 04:40 pm.

    The hypocrisy of people like Nienow

    just nauseates me. Take Jack Kingston (R) from Georgia for example…..this guy stands up and says that poor kids should sweep floors for their free peanut butter sandwich so they learn that there’s no “free lunch”…of course he and his staff expensed $4,000 in meals for business purposes to his congressional office. Tack on another 4K in lunches paid for by lobbyists and 145K on meals for various campaign functions. But clearly , the problem is over-worked, strapped parents who fall behind paying for a two dollar subsidized lunch for their hungry kid.

  7. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 02/12/2014 - 05:23 pm.


    “The concern with that is number one, you’re completely disengaging families that theoretically at least have a fairly substantial ability to pay something,” said the Cambridge Republican. “If the problem is that we have one or two or 10 or 50 or 100 or 1,000 kids that have a parent that [isn’t] fulfilling their responsibility, well then let’s look at targeting the resources to fix that problem, and not spend it on all 60,000 kids.”

    This from a guy who defaulted on a half million dollar business loan. You can’t make this stuff up.

  8. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 02/12/2014 - 07:34 pm.

    You don’t have to look that far for hypocrisy

    Might I remind you that it was recently revealed that Nienow defaulted on a SBA loan for $613,000. It was for a business counseling parents on summer camps for their kids. Pretty sure summer camp consultant wasn’t one of the jobs Congress had in mind when they created Labor Day to honor the American worker. Unfortunately, he’s my senator and has refused to discuss the default. He now owes over $700,000, but, other than stating this won’t interfere with performing his duties, he’s pretty mum on the issue. But the man can’t resist a microphone so once again he’s concerned about money being spent to ensure that a school kid has at least one decent meal a day.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/12/2014 - 09:27 pm.

      See above

      Do you disagree with the idea of addressing what might be a small problem or should we throw lots of money everywhere and hope that everything gets fixed?

  9. Submitted by Jon Lord on 02/13/2014 - 07:47 am.

    The point!

    The point is to feed kids in school. All of them! There is no reason why that shouldn’t be done. Irresponsible parents? Feed the kids! Republican or Democrat? Feed the kids! Poor parents? Feed the kids! Single Parents? Feed the kids! The point is to feed any kid that needs to eat. Lack of jobs? Low pay? Whatever it is, it shouldn’t be tied to politics simply because the children shouldn’t be left to go hungry. It’s not incredibly difficult to insure every child eats at least one meal a day!

    Other than that the GOP has this idea that they are so very conservative that paying rent or repaying loans is against their ideals because it requires ‘spending money’, spending money to insure kids don’t go hungry at school will be reflected in better grades and better educated children. A better educated public shouldn’t be looked at as a negative.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 02/13/2014 - 01:01 pm.

      Let’s expand this

      If the kids come to school dressed inadequately for the cold weather, should the school give them new coats?

      If the kids come with extreme body odor and dirty clothes, should the school shower the child and wash their clothes? Or give them new ones?

      If the kids come with their homework incomplete, are the school and government responsible for fixing this problem?

      If a child is bullied outside of school hours, are the school and government responsible for fixing this problem?

      It is interesting that so many people want to expand the school’s responsibilities so far beyond educating…. No wonder schools struggle to teach when you think they should be doing so much more.

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