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

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.

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.”