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Dayton supplemental budget plan to include $3.5 million for hot student lunches

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By Sarah Horner

ST. PAUL - Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton plans to include $3.5 million in his supplemental budget so students cannot be denied a hot meal at lunchtime.

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The announcement comes a day after a report found Minnesota students who forget their lunch or can’t afford to pay for one are sometimes refused a meal altogether. In the worst cases, children are forced to dump the contents of their hot lunch in the garbage. The practice was exposed by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid in an effort to bring awareness to the varying school lunch policies, said Jessica Webster, staff attorney for the organization.

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

About 94 percent of districts across the state participated in Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s survey conducted last fall. It asked each to explain how they respond to a student who shows up for hot lunch without the money to pay for it.

The survey was particularly interested in how districts handle cases involving students who qualify to receive reduced-price lunches, which cost about 40 cents.

The majority of districts — about 54 percent — said they typically cover a hot meal for a certain period of time on credit before opting to give those students an alternative, cheaper lunch in its place. That lunch typically consists of a cheese or peanut butter sandwich with milk, according to the findings.

St. Paul was among the 166 districts statewide that fell into that category.

Another 15 percent reported eventually refusing to serve students any lunch when they don’t have the money to pay for it, regardless of whether they qualify for a reduced price.

That decision typically comes after the student has shown a negative balance in their lunch account and the school has already covered a limited portion of alternative meals, the results said.

In severe cases, a small handful of districts reported “pulling trays and dumping exposed food in to the trash in front of the child,” the report said.

Among the 46 districts that will eventually refuse a meal was West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan.

That district says it only withholds lunches after exhausting a tireless list of other options, including sending notes home with students to remind parents of account deficits, providing verbal reminders to students and sometimes arranging for a school principal or counselor to personally call families to discuss the situation, according to Carrie Hilger, a spokesman for the West St. Paul-Mendota-Heights-Eagan school district.

Those families who can no longer afford the reduced price lunch are encouraged to apply for the free program.

Lunches are only withheld after students have already charged two hot lunches to credit — one for high school students — and have used up all their available alternative meals, Hilger said.

“While we won’t indefinitely supply that alternative meal we have enough systems in place to work with families and get kids back on track,” Hilger said. “No child is going hungry.”

The St. Paul district revisited its approach to handling past-due student lunch accounts for this school year, said Jean Ronnei, the district’s chief operating officer.

When students with more than $2 in unpaid reduced-price lunches came through the lunch line, cashiers used to remind them their families were behind on payments. Now, the district makes calls to parents, send letters home in backpacks and eventually asks the principal to reach out to families, as well.

When a student’s family comes to owe $25 — or 62 reduced-price lunches — the child will receive a sandwich and milk instead of a hot lunch, Ronnei said. Middle and high school students still get a reminder from the lunchroom cashier.

But, said Ronnei, “We would never take away a lunch tray from a student.”

The district has also taken steps to ensure more families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches fill out applications to receive those meals.

Substituting a cheaper meal for the full hot lunch offering is not an adequate response, Webster said.

“Our position is that no child should be turned away without a meal and it’s bad practice to shame kids with alternative meals like a cheese sandwich,” Webster said. “Hungry kids can’t learn.”

The remaining districts surveyed — about 31 percent of the districts — are meeting the mark Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid thinks those across the state should be hitting.

Those districts agree to always provide a full hot lunch to students receiving reduced-price meals, even if they can’t afford to cover the 40 cents, the survey said.

Anoka-Hennepin was among the 97 districts in that group.

“It’s not the fault of the child that there is no money in his or her lunch account,” Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Denny Carlson said about his district’s perspective behind the decision. “We don’t want to take a nutritious meal away from a child who is hungry. That would be penalizing the child for something that is the responsibility of the adult. School lunch may be the only hot meal the child gets that day.”

The districts that fall short of that commitment provide a list of reasons, Webster said, with limited resources and budgetary constraints topping the list. Others believe schools shouldn’t have to step in for parents in this regard.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid is a longtime advocate of changing state policy to expand the free-lunch program to include those students who now qualify for the reduced-price meal.

A bill proposed in 2013 would pay 52 cents in state aid for each reduced-price student lunch served. It also prohibits charging a lunch fee to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

“The bill hasn’t gone anywhere in the past, but we’re hoping to get some traction this year,” she said.

Dayton said he will work with the Legislature to make this issue a priority in the upcoming legislative session. The state’s education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, urged districts to take whatever actions necessary so that all students have a healthy lunch.

Ronnei said the St. Paul district strongly supports the governor’s legislative proposal.

“That the governor recognizes that there’s an important group of students who are struggling is a great thing.”

On the Web

To read the school lunch report and the proposed bill at the Legislature, go online to TwinCities.com.

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