Inconsistent and demeaning policies for students who show up in a Minnesota school cafeteria without lunch money cause too many to go away hungry, say advocates for low-income families pushing for broader subsidies for school meals.
Read a quick rundown of what type of free or reduced lunch some school districts in Minnesota provide.
Students in some districts receive a bread and butter sandwich for a few days. Others receive no meal at all. In an effort to get parents to pay, many districts stamp children's hands, sometimes with a dollar sign or the words "lunch money."
THE FREE LUNCH STIGMA
The prospect of an "alternative" lunch or a hand stamp can be stigmatizing to a child, say critics, including teachers and child welfare advocates. They say some children may choose to skip meals rather than face those consequences. The policies unfairly put children in the middle of a financial transaction between parents and the district, said Jessica Webster, an attorney with Legal Aid.
"I think we are looking at this through a middle- and upper-class lens," she said. "Even though we want low-income kids to eat healthy meals, we want them to eat a meal, first of all."
Legal Aid surveyed 182 school districts, about half the districts in the state, to find out what schools do when students run out of money in their lunch accounts. The group found that 30 districts stop feeding children whose parents don't pay. Most districts do not provide the regular school lunch to children without money and instead offer an alternative lunch, often a sandwich and milk. Only 22 districts provide unlimited hot meals to all children.
MPR News conducted separate interviews with a variety of districts statewide to confirm the findings. Some districts said hand stamping was necessary, while others called the practice unacceptable. Most food nutrition directors said they have little choice but to deny the full lunch to students without money.
"There's a lot of people out there who think we should feed every kid, but that's not realistic," said Jason Forshee, the food nutrition services director for Waseca Public Schools. "My goal is not to lose $20,000 every year. My goal is to break even."
Waseca Public Schools uses an "Angel Fund" to pay for lunches for students without money, but Forshee said the program relies on donations and has limited funds. The district, like many others, encourages low-income families to apply for free or reduced-price lunch. About 300,000 students in Minnesota are enrolled in the federal program, which provides subsidies to school districts. Families on the reduced-price program pay 40 cents a meal.
Eligibility is based on income. For example, a family of four earning less than $28,665 a year qualifies for free lunch. A family of four with an income between $28,665 and $40,793 qualifies for reduced-price lunch.
Some districts provide little to no assistance when a child's account runs out of money. Albert Lea Area Schools allow students to "charge" up to three lunches. If the parents still haven't paid, the district provides a bread and butter sandwich and milk for three more days. After that, the district stops providing any food. Lunchroom workers stamp elementary students' hands with a red dollar sign to remind their parents to pay.
In Redwood Falls Area Schools, students receive a bag lunch for three days and then they're cut off. Rachel Helsper, the district employee responsible for tracking student accounts, said she was unaware of the policy. "That seems pretty extreme to me," she said. "I don't think kids starve for sure, at least I hope they don't."
Helsper said she hasn't heard of stamping children's hands at the lunch line. "That's a really good idea," she said. "I'll write that one down."
St. Louis County Schools stamps kids hands with a "smiley face" to remind parents to pay. The district used to provide a peanut butter sandwich and milk for three days. "Just enough to make sure that they don't go away hungry," said Teri Slygh, the district's student data coordinator.
The district decided last year to restrict students to just one free lunch. The district has provided fewer alternative meals this school year and has fewer accounts with a negative balance.
"We realized that by the time they get that one, they've been warned and warned and warned," Slygh said. "So we've kind of tightened up our requirements a little bit. I think that's why it's going so much better because they know we're serious."
Slygh said it's the parents' responsibility to make sure their children are fed. The majority of parents don't fall behind in payments, she said, and the parents who don't pay aren't necessarily the parents without money. "It's more of parents not taking care of their kids properly," she said.
A CLASSROOM DISRUPTION
Teachers said the policies have a clear impact on the ability of children to learn in the classroom. Anne Krafthefer, a fifth-grade teacher in Duluth, said it's common for children to start fights or act up in class when they haven't eaten.
Krafthefer also teaches GED classes for adults who dropped out of school. She said many of those students share childhood stories of feeling neglected by both their parents and their school. "Feeding a child is a way of saying, 'We care about you,'" she said. "If there's warm food there, that's one more reason for kids who are living in poverty to get to school and participate."
Some districts approach the matter differently. Minneapolis Public Schools decided two years ago to provide the full hot lunch to students who can't pay. The district won't be done calculating how much it costs until the end of June. Lunchroom employees do not stamp students' hands.
"It's a visible sign that the child owes money. I think that might be a little embarrassing for the child," said Rosemary Dederichs, the district's director of nutrition.
Keith Lester, the superintendent of Brooklyn Center Public Schools, said the cost of providing free meals is worth it. The district always provides a free sandwich and milk for students.
"Does it matter if it's a sandwich and a carton of milk, by commodity prices and everything, does it matter that much to make sure that a child has something in their stomach at lunch time? I don't think so," he said. "I'd rather worry about our burden somewhere else."
The financial transactions taking place in the lunchroom are not always well understood by district leaders.
Lester, the Brooklyn Center superintendent, said the district does not stamp the hands of high school students. He added, "I don't think we do it in the elementary. Gee, I hope we don't."
As it turns out, the district does stamp the hands of elementary students. "We will be seeking alternatives to hand-stamping," Lester said in an email to MPR News after he learned of the practice.
Elaine DeWenter, director of finance for Monticello Public Schools, sent an email to MPR News saying, in part, "We are in the process of evaluating and updating this policy. Until it is finalized and Board approved, our procedure is to offer a cheese or SunButter sandwich, fruit, and milk as an alternative lunch. We no longer cut this off after one day." (SunButter is a sunflower-seed spread that resembles peanut butter.)
State and federal lawmakers have proposed legislation that would expand free lunches to more students, but the measures have failed. Legal Aid estimates that it would cost the state $3.5 million to expand the free lunch program to students currently receiving the reduced-price lunch.
District officials said they would welcome the extra help. Debra LaBounty, the president of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association, said she wishes the government would go a step further and provide free lunches to all children. She acknowledges that would be expensive but would result in healthier and smarter kids.
She said the issue has gotten too complicated and obscures a more fundamental belief shared by everyone who works with students.
"All kids should be able to eat," she said.