For some families, going back to school means going back to lunchroom debt

Before Minnesota banned school lunch shaming, children who owed money to the cafeteria might be handed a cold cheese sandwich for lunch. Or no lunch at all.

They might come home from school wearing a humiliating sticker or hand stamp to let their parents — and every other kid on the school bus — know they were in debt.

They might be banned from field trips or fun class activities until someone paid up.

But Minnesota did ban lunch shaming. State lawmakers, who don’t agree on much, came together across party lines on that one last year. Because a child’s biggest worry at lunchtime should be more along the lines of whether today is Pizza Day or not.

The law changed. Many school district policies did not.

As students head back to school, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid — which has battled for years to identify and eradicate lunch shaming — went back to check how school districts across the state planned to handle unpaid lunchroom debt this year.

Legal Aid surveyed more than 330 Minnesota school districts. They found 124 policies that seemed to violate either the spirit or the letter of the state’s new ban on lunch shaming.

Among the study’s findings:

“If a family lunch account has a negative balance for a period of time,” warns a handbook in one southwestern Minnesota district, “the student may be refused a meal.”

On paper at least, a central Minnesota district will not allow students to charge a meal if they don’t have money in their account. Nor will it allow their classmates to share food off their trays with the hungry child,”for health and sanitation reasons.”

Another district in the southeastern corner of the state spells out a plan to withhold milk from first-graders during their morning snack break until their lunch balance is out of the red.

Many other districts have policies allowing staffers to slip children with lunch debts an alternative meal — a jelly sandwich, SunButter or cold cheese.

Legal Aid wrote to the Minnesota Department of Education last week, asking the state to review these policies and consult the attorney general to see whether any of the policies violated the state law.

When you hand a child a cold cheese sandwich on Pizza Day, it sends a message. Even when that message is slipped discreetly into their classroom cubby so it looks like they brown-bagged a meal from home.

“Alternate meals served in brown bags are shaming,” said Jessica Webster, a staff attorney for Legal Aid who has been working for years to make sure Minnesota’s children don’t leave school hungrier than when they arrived. “You’re still telling the kid, ‘Hey, your adult didn’t do what they were supposed to do. This is what’s going to happen to you because your adult didn’t pay.'”

For the past two years, lunchroom debt was one of the few things Minnesotans didn’t have to worry about. Federal pandemic funding covered the cost of school meals for any student, no questions asked.

But those funds expired in June, and that experiment in universal school nutrition is over. Which means that for some Minnesota families and districts, back-to-school could mean back to lunchroom debt.

Hounding families to pay their school meal tabs is hard on the families — and it’s hard on the schools stuck with five- or six-figure lunchroom deficits.

“The lunch thing can be tough,” said Patrick Walsh, superintendent of the Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa school district, where past and present students owe tens of thousands to the cafeteria at the same time the district is struggling with the rising cost of everything from food to staff salaries. “A lot of families don’t have the means. … But if they’d ask for help, they might not wind up in debt.”

The thrifty rural school district has found ways to help itself and its families. Reselling the sturdy maple boards from the old gym floor raised $10,000 for the district, he said. Angel investors, responding to an ad the schools put in the paper, have stepped up to pay off the lunch debts for families who do ask for help.

Legal Aid flagged a district policy that allows it to block students from graduation ceremonies if they owe money for their meals, but Walsh said he has never heard of that happening in the five years he’s been with the district — even for students who graduate after eating thousands of dollars in unpaid lunches.

The problem isn’t that schools are the bad guys.

The problem is that America — which doesn’t expect children to pay for textbooks before they can learn, or chip in for gas before they can ride the school bus — has stuck schools with the job of collecting lunch money.

“The answer is not to continue to debate whether a cheese sandwich or a jelly sandwich meets the law,” Webster said. “The answer is to feed kids.”