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Minnesota House approves lunches for all students

ST. PAUL — Minnesota students would be guaranteed school lunches if senators agree with a House vote.

By 130-0, representatives on Thursday approved pumping

$3.5 million into the school lunch program.

The action came after a February report released by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid that surveyed 309 public school districts and showed that 15 percent of public schools deny lunch to students who pay a reduced price for lunch and more than half deny them a hot lunch when their account has a negative balance.

Another 30 percent, including the Duluth, Esko and Hermantown school districts, feed those students a hot lunch regardless.

The report found that many districts direct employees to dump lunches in the garbage instead of serving them to students, and they stamp students’ hands as reminders that payment is due.

“No child should go through any shame, worry or embarrassment as they make their way through the lunch line in any school,” Rep. Yvonne Selcer, D-Minnetonka, said about her bill.

The federal government pays most costs of school lunches and other meals and the state pays 12.5 cents. That leaves 40 cents for students to pay, but not all families can afford it.

Some school districts absorb the 40 cents, while others refuse to feed students if they can’t pay. Selcer’s bill pays that 40-cent difference.

International Falls, Eveleth-Gilbert, Willow River and Moose Lake school districts were placed on the list that reported an immediate or eventual refusal to serve food to students whose accounts were at a negative balance.

Superintendents for all of those districts said they served cold lunches to students to varying degrees, and said they worked with families to get accounts up to date in the meantime.

In International Falls, the policy of choosing either a jelly and butter or peanut butter sandwich or a piece of fruit applies only to older students and not elementary students, who are served hot meals, Superintendent Nordy Nelson said.

When asked if that’s enough food for a student, he said with the amount of food waste he sees in the cafeteria, “I have to say that’s enough.”

He said students are able to charge several times before they are offered an alternate meal, and attempts are made to work with families to pay their bills or have them file a new form for free lunch if circumstances have changed.

The district’s school lunch policy differs from practice. It says unwrapped food on trays will be discarded, which Nelson said doesn’t happen, and students in grades 7-12 won’t be allowed to purchase food unless there is money in their accounts.

In Eveleth-Gilbert, Superintendent Deborah Hilde said students are given a bag lunch with a sandwich, fruit and milk for up to five days, and then they are referred to a counselor or principal to talk about needs.

“I don’t understand why we are on that list,” she said. “We continue to provide the bag lunch.”

In Willow River, a sandwich, vegetable or fruit and milk are provided, Superintendent Scott Anderson said.

“We’re not dumping trays,” he said. “The lunch people know every kid by name. You can talk to them.”

Moose Lake Superintendent Robert Indihar said he misinterpreted the survey.

“We would not have kids go hungry in Moose Lake,” he said, noting that it’s rare that an alternate meal is given but sandwiches and milk are provided if unpaid bills are large enough. He recently worked to pare down a $5,000 total lunch deficit.

“This is a great opportunity, members, to make a statement that no child should go hungry in a Minnesota school,” she told fellow representatives.

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said he would prefer that rather than the state paying for lunches that individuals should receive tax breaks for donating to food service programs. Gruenhagen said he fears the state could mismanage the money.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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