Legal Aid finds some Minnesota districts denying lunches

Fifteen percent of districts refuse children a hot meal if they cannot pay 

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

For six years, Legal Aid has been advocating to prohibit the practice of denying hot lunches to low-income children who have insufficient funds in their lunch accounts.

Legal Aid Attorney Jessica Webster said that about one-third of Minnesota school districts have rejected the practice of not feeding children without funds.

Webster said that expanding free lunch to all reduced-price eligible students would guarantee a nutritious hot lunch to an additional 61,000 children.

On Tuesday, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed the state provide additional funding in the upcoming legislative session to ensure every child has access to a nutritious lunch while in school.

Dayton proposed $3.5 million in his supplemental budget to ensure no child is denied a hot lunch in Minnesota schools.

Legal Aid found, through a survey, that 46 districts reported a policy of refusing to serve a hot lunch or alternative meal to those who could not pay. It also learned that 165 districts offer a less-nutritious meal in place of the hot meal.

On the other side, 98 districts always provide a full-menu hot lunch to low-income children, even if the child cannot afford the fee.

The Legal Aid report said many districts use letters, emails and phone calls to reach out to parents who are in arrears with lunch money. A few districts give verbal warnings to children with low or negative account balances. Many districts said they are under no obligation to feed a child who has insufficient funds in the lunch account — even though they may provide an alternative meal.

One district encouraged the student to borrow money from a friend and some districts said they have threatened legal action against parents for unpaid lunch debts.

Forty-six districts reported the practice of immediate or eventual refusal to serve food to a child who is unable to pay the 40 cents. Mostly there had been an account deficit, but the districts did not guarantee food to a child who could not pay. Some turned away all children, while others only turned away middle or high school children.

Locally, Upsala and Pillager were listed as one of the 46 districts.

Pillager Supt. Chuck Arns said the policy is seldom used at his school.

“Three times with a high school (student) all year — no elementary (students),” he said. “We are very proactive with emails, phone calls and letters to parents about the status of their accounts. We have $20 maximum amount that a student can be behind. That translates to 10 weeks of opportunity for us to notify the student’s parents numerous times. We do that. Everybody is eating every day.”

Dean Peterson, the Upsala School Board chair, said, “There is a comprehensive statewide plan to ensure hot lunches are available to low income students. Upsala encourages every parent or guardian who needs help to apply for free or reduced lunches and the school facilitates that to the fullest degree. But, you cannot force someone to apply. Those who qualify need never fear getting denied anything in the hot lunch program.”

Peterson went on to say the district has never denied anyone a hot lunch because of a single or multiple incidences of not having the money on them. For years it has been the practice to substitute sandwiches and milk for a hot lunch after repeated mailings and phone notices when the lunch account is significantly behind.

“This year we have not denied a hot lunch to anyone, even though some families are behind on their lunch bill,” Peterson said. “The real story here is that if families who cannot afford a reasonably priced hot lunch program do not qualify for a state or federal assistance program, maybe the maximum income guidelines need to be raised. That would be one way for Gov. Dayton to spend the $3.5 million.”

Peterson said that in the rare case of a child not getting a hot lunch due to a period of non-payment, the school still feeds them twice during the day (free breakfast program) plus a milk break for elementary students.

Pierz, Royalton and Swanville schools were listed with the 165 districts which did not always guarantee hot lunches to a student who could not afford the 40 cent copay. Each had a policy of eventual alternative meals until a child could pay.

Little Falls and Staples Motley districts were part of the group which always provide a full menu hot lunch to a reduced price eligible child, even if the child cannot afford the 40-cent copay.

“No child in Minnesota should be denied a healthy lunch,” Dayton said. “We cannot expect our students to succeed on an empty stomach.”

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that districts should take action to ensure all Minnesota children have access to a healthy lunch.

“For too many of our children, school meals may be the only nutritious meals the receive. We also know that children learn best when they have nutritious meals throughout their days.”