Officials: Don't lunch-shame low-income Minnesota students

A school lunchroom
Reports that Minnesota school cafeteria workers are taking lunches from kids who can't afford them has some children's advocates calling for change.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News file

Reports that school cafeteria workers are taking lunches from kids who can't afford them has some children's advocates calling for change.

Jill Haggerty, a mother in Stewartville in southeastern Minnesota, said her kids in middle and high school reported seeing lunches taken from classmates and the food dumped in metal buckets in front of them earlier this month.

"I heard from one of my children that one of his good friends had his meal taken away," Haggerty said. "He told me they had a metal bucket on the floor, and if when they went through the line, if they had a negative balance, that their food was being taken away, dumped into this bucket and they were given a sandwich in place of it."

Haggerty said she got similar reports multiple times, and that a school food service worker confirmed the practice when she called. Haggerty called it "very disturbing."

School district officials in Stewartville declined to answer questions about the practice, but did issue a statement.

"At this point we have not been able to verify that any trays were actually pulled from students," Superintendent Belinda Selfors said in the statement. "We are reviewing our procedures and ensuring that no child is being turned away from receiving a school lunch."

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Selfors also said the district was working with food service management and their staff to make sure all kids get lunch. The district uses an outside contractor, Minnetonka-based Taher, as their food service vendor. The district told KTTC-TV families owed about $10,000 for lunches.

The state Legislature passed a law in 2014 addressing school lunch debts, directing schools not to take public action against students from families who couldn't pay for their lunches. That came in part after a report by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid outlining so-called "lunch shaming," the practice of giving kids substitute meals, stamping their hands or even refusing to feed kids that couldn't pay up.

Jessica Webster, staff attorney with the Legal Services Advocacy Project
Jessica Webster, staff attorney with the Legal Services Advocacy Project
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Jessica Webster, a lawyer with the Legal Services Advocacy Project, said she believes some school districts have maintained the practice.

"Stress and anxiety that kids sit with during the day about whether or not they have funds for lunch is an impediment to learning. And we should care about school lunch and school meals as much as we care about textbooks, teacher quality, everything that goes into the school building, because lunch is critical," she told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol.

Reducing lunch service, taking food or marking kids who can't pay is more likely to result in students staying away from lunch than their families paying up, she added.

Colleen Moriarty, executive director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota said her organization's food help line is still getting calls from kids from families that can't pay for their lunches despite expanded free and reduced lunch programs. "We continue to be concerned as these stories roll out," Moriarty said.

The reports in Stewartville brought concern from lawmakers, as well. Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth, said the state already gave districts the money to make reduced meals free, but added that the law may need to include some consequences.

"I think the state law is pretty clear, and if you don't understand what's demeaning or stigmatizing for children who don't have enough money in their account, just look at the face of a child when you decide to dump their tray, and the ridicule they face from their classmates," Anderson said. She called it school-sanctioned bullying.

Such reports are frustrating when many school districts have millions of dollars in general education reserves, and could pay the lunch debts, said Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

"These reserves are unspent funding that the kids themselves generated each year, but were not spent on them," Cassellius said in a statement. "It seems fair that this funding be used first to feed kids that need it, rather than shame or deny them a meal."