A bill in the state Legislature that aims to help Minnesota students whose families cannot afford to buy them lunch would expand the free lunch program by 61,500 students.
Supporters of the bill say it would ensure that low-income students have the nutrition they need to learn in school and are not refused a lunch when they cannot pay. But at a cost to the state of $4 million a year, the measure has sparked criticism that it relieves parents of responsibility.
Under the federal National School Lunch Program, Minnesota provides free lunches to nearly 250,000 students a year.
The 61,500 students some legislators want to add currently qualify for lunch at a reduced price. For 40 cents a day, they receive a balanced meal, such as a turkey burger, sweet potatoes, fruit and vegetables. But advocates for low-income families say even that can be too much to pay.
"There is a risk that these kids don't have the money for lunch," said Jessica Webster, a staff attorney with the Legal Services Advocacy Project.
Legal Aid surveyed about half of the school districts in the state to find out what schools do when students run out of money in their lunch accounts. The group found that in some lunch lines, such children can't get a meal.
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"We found that about 20 percent of districts do have a policy of turning a child away with nothing," Webster said. "It looks different in a lot of districts. Some days you'll get a peanut butter sandwich for three days, and then they'll send you away. Some days you'll get crackers, and then you get turned away after a week."
Two bills to expand the free-lunch program have been filed in the state Senate. Similar measures have been introduced in the House.
"With all of the talk about education and education reform, and making sure that our children are prepared to go into society, there's no better way than to make that sure kids get a good, quality lunch so they can learn," said state Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, the chief author of one of the bills.
Hayden, the deputy majority leader in the DFL-controlled Senate, said school lunch may be the only good meal some low-income children receive all day.
The bill is likely to face some questions when it comes up in a Senate hearing. Among those who are skeptical of the proposal is state Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge.
"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 Nienow, the ranking minority member on the Senate Education Finance Committee.
Under current federal guidelines, children from a family of four can qualify for reduced-price lunch if their family's household income does not exceed $42,643 a year. For a family of seven, the limit is $64,621.
That may be tight, Nienow said, but most of those families probably can pitch in.
"If the problem is that we have 1 or 2 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," he said.
It's hard to say how many children are turned away at lunchtime. Lunchroom policy on what to do when a child cannot pay varies widely, said Webster, the Legal Aid attorney.
"It's not always district by district," Webster said. "Sometimes it's school by school, or lunch lady by lunch lady. There are principals that would never have a child turned away. And there are principals who say, 'Look, this is a new reality, we have a lot of funding pressures.'"
Among the districts that have policy to turn students without money away is the St. James School District in southern Minnesota. Superintendent Becky Cselovszki said the district allows students to run a deficit for three meals before turning them away. Ordinarily, the district feeds students for seven to 10 days before enforcing the policy, she said.
But Cselovski said that is unusual. The St. James Schools refused meals to only two children last school year, after allowing them to run a deficit for many days.
The district simply can't feed everyone for free, said Cselovszki, who last year wrote off about $2,000 in unpaid lunch debt.
"We run a very tight budget," she said. "I mean, my budget for this year, we're showing $9,000 in the black on the entire year. That means everything has to go perfectly according to plan just to stay in the black and not go into the red. There's just no way that we can continue to pick up things like that out of our general fund."
Still, Cselovszki is torn about the proposed legislation. She doesn't want the money pulled from other education funds, and sees a role for families to play.
"I'm all for feeding all the kids, and I think it's a great initiative, but I do also think that there needs to be some accountability on our parents," Cselovszki said. "I think the school over time has just continued to take on more and more parental responsibilities. There has to be a line somewhere."
If the Legislature does expand the free-lunch program to include additional low-income children that would be welcome news for many nutrition directors and those on the front lines in the lunchrooms.
In the Brooklyn Center Community Schools, lunchroom personnel used to serve children sandwiches when they couldn't pay. But District Cook Manager Sandy Schultz said she wasn't comfortable with that and in the past two years began to serve them. She wants all students to eat a healthy meal.
"I worry on the weekends," Schultz said of the students who cannot afford to buy lunch. "Are they eating? Is there enough food at home? Whether it's a parent not doing their job, or whatever the case may be, somebody's gotta care."
If a child in Brooklyn Center schools shows up without money for lunch, that student can eat anyway. Schultz doesn't yet know what this will do to her budget.
"You know, I guess if I lose my job for not coming out in the black, then I guess I lose my job for not coming out in the black," she said.
Senate committee leaders say the proposed legislation will get a hearing, but a date hasn't been set.