Tossing the school lunches of children whose accounts are in the black isn’t just a problem in Utah anymore. As more states begin to look into how their schools deal with paid or reduced-price lunches in their systems, it’s becoming apparent that what originally looked like a few isolated bad decisions may in actuality be a widespread policy. The question is: How can we end it?
When a Salt Lake City school nutrition manager threw away the lunches of a few dozen school kids who didn’t learn until they reached the cash register that they didn’t have the money in their accounts to pay for their purchases, the outrage went national. The actions aren’t a one off misunderstanding, however. A report out of Minnesota shows that such events are happening with regularity in the state’s own schools, and it’s becoming a growing problem.
According to a survey conducted by Legal Aid in Minnesota, a majority of schools in the state will deny a hot lunch to a child who does not have a positive lunch account. Some do toss lunches if they aren’t able to identify delinquent accounts ahead of purchase. Some of those kids will get bread and butter or maybe a cheese sandwich, while others will receive nothing. Some will also get stamped on their hands with “lunch” or “money,” a literal mark of shame to take home to their parents.
Some schools report that they are just as bothered by this tossing of food for non-payment as the rest of the country, but for very different reasons. “Lunch trays will be pulled from a student if there is not enough money in the account,” officials in Anoka County’s St. Francis School District wrote in a notice to parents of students in grades six through 12, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We do not enjoy pulling trays from students and it slows the lines for other students trying to get through.”
Yes, slow lunch lines are definitely the big issue to be concerned about.
According to the Star Tribune, many of the lunches tossed are from children who are already receiving subsidized lunches, meaning that they are being denied a hot lunch due to a shortfall of as little as 40 cents. For children on reduced-cost lunches, that could have been the sole source of a balanced meal for the day.
The Minnesota legislature is considering addressing the issue by passing a bill that will fully fund lunch for all reduced-priced lunch participants, which is expected to cost about $3.35 million. It was a proposal that was introduced and failed during the 2013 session.
The Minnesota solution is a positive step, but is it enough? That’s a question being asked in a number of states, where ensuring children have access to food is becoming a meaningful priority. In Maine, a new law will allow schools in poor areas to offer a summer nutrition program from students who have subsidized for free lunches, a change that will allow many lower income children to have adequate nutritional needs met through all 12 months of the year, not just the nine months that school is in session. The bill was vetoed by Republican Gov. Paul LePage, but the veto was overridden.
Meanwhile, a number of cities are offering free lunches to all students, regardless of the family’s income or if they qualify for a subsidy. Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and others have already begun the program, and it’s one that many who would like to see child hunger reduced are cheering for. By offering it for everyone, it encourages good, nutritious food for all students as well as reduces the stigma involved in the reduced and free lunch programs.
Can this spread to a national mandate? Let’s hope. School lunches are for eating, not tossing.
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