MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A new survey shows a majority of school districts in Minnesota deny hot lunch, and sometimes any lunch, to children who can't pay.
The report comes after a school in Utah drew criticism for throwing lunches in the trash if students couldn't pay.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius called the report "troubling" and urged schools to make sure kids never are turned away from a hot meal.
"As you know, for too many of our children, school meals may be the only nutritious meals they receive," she wrote in a letter to superintendents.
About 62,000 low-income children and teens are in Minnesota's reduced-price lunch program, which means they can get a hot, nutritious lunch for 40 cents, with the rest covered by public funds. But if students don't have 40 cents, some schools deny or downgrade lunches.
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid questioned 309 school districts for the survey.
The Star Tribune reported (http://strib.mn/1iVLCkC ) that 46 Minnesota school districts said they immediately or eventually refuse to feed students who can't pay. More than half the districts in the state — 166 of them — provide an alternative meal, typically a cold cheese sandwich. Another 96 school districts provide a hot lunch regardless of ability to pay.
The survey found some schools take meals from students in the lunch line and dump them in the trash when they don't have money in their accounts. Some send students home with a hand stamp that everyone can see that says "LUNCH" or "MONEY." Others give students a bread-and-butter sandwich and carton of milk.
"They have budgetary pressures and they have new federal mandates for healthy foods, (and) food has gotten more expensive," said Jessica Webster, staff attorney for Legal Aid's Legal Services Advocacy Project, which conducted the survey with support from Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. "Many just see this as a parental responsibility. Some districts don't see refusing to serve food as turning children away. They say, 'We give you a cheese sandwich for three days and then it's your parents' responsibility.'"
A measure that would expand the free lunch program to all students who now receive reduced-price lunch never made it into the education budget bill last session. Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, is preparing to push the bill again this year.
Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com