The report of Minnesota school students from low-income families being denied a hot school lunch raises a major question as to who is responsible for feeding hungry students in school.
Clearly, the will of the people is that no student should go through the school day hungry.
Most agree it is the responsibility of parents to make sure children eligible for a reduced-price lunch either have a bag lunch or the 40-cent co-pay in their lunch account needed to get a hot meal. The same holds for parents who are not eligible for reduced-price meals in school cafeterias. A spokesperson for Legal Aid said this week it believes the same payment policies are applied to all students, regardless of ability to pay for a hot lunch.
The survey by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid found that 46 school districts eventually, after some effort at collection, deny children a lunch if they don’t have the 40 cents to pay for it. The survey comes on the heels of reports from Utah where students were denied meals because of lack of payment. The Utah incidents highlighted the situation here. In fact, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid has been advocating for the past six years to prohibit this practice in Minnesota.
The survey found that another 166 districts provide an alternative — fruit, a cheese or peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk – while the rest of the districts, including Minneapolis and Anoka-Hennepin, serve hot lunches to those who qualify for reduced-price lunches.
Judging from reaction, this issue has engaged many Minnesotans who are choosing sides on the issue of the responsibility of government to feed hot lunches and breakfasts to students who come to school hungry for whatever reason.
We believe that the child should not suffer because of neglectful parents, particularly if they have to sit in school feeling the pangs of hunger. The focus of this discussion is on those students who qualify for a reduced-price lunch based on the family’s annual income.
The bottom line is who should pay the 40 cents for a hot lunch when the family can’t or forgets to do so in a timely fashion.
The answer comes down to the local school district administration and policies approved by the school board. Budgets are set and most districts expect the lunch program to be self-supporting. However, the priority of all school districts ought first to be be how can we get all children fed, not how can we get all the meals paid for.
It’s hard to blame the local school food service department that most likely is following orders and guidelines to provide meals while staying within their budgets. But policies that deny a student a meal or send a student home with an ink-stamped hand as a reminder that payment is due are cruel, mean and simply wrong. No child should be punished or humiliated in such a fashion because an adult has failed their personal responsibility.
We believe local taxpayers would pay more if they knew those additional funds would go directly to pay for hot lunches for students from low-income families. We also believe most districts can be creative in finding solutions that are respectful to struggling families who want to pay, but need more time.
Meanwhile, this survey has so stirred up the public that the Legislature will likely pass a bill making sure every student who qualifies for a reduced-price lunch will get a hot meal. That will require an estimated expenditure of $3.5 million. Gov. Mark Dayton is including the $3.5 million in his supplemental budget that will be considered this session. The state has a budget surplus, meaning the funds are available. It is unfortunate that a proposal in the last session to provide this funding fell on deaf ears and was eliminated from the budget.
The focus alone on this issue will help solve the problem as local school boards examine their policies and procedures and hold accountable administrators to make sure no child is denied a lunch. School districts that carry a healthy food service fund balance do not face budget problems.
The Legal Aid survey also drew a response from the commissioner of education. Calling the substance of the survey “quite troubling,” Brenda Cassellius wrote to superintendents in all districts last week: “Like me, I know that none of you would deny a child a nutritious lunch intentionally. 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.”
Legislators should pass this legislation so that all children eligible for free-and-reduced lunches, no matter the economic circumstances of their parents, are provided a hot school lunch so that they can learn their lessons.
– An opinion from the ECM Publishers Editorial Board