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Our view: A compassionate approach on school lunch debt is always best

Earlier this month, Attorney General Keith Ellison ruled that students whose families have school lunch debt cannot be denied a regular lunch or be forced to eat a substandard meal in place of whatever lunch is being offered that day at the school.

Herald pull quote, 11/30/22
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A compassionate and just decision has come from the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Keith Ellison ruled that students whose families have school lunch debt cannot be denied a regular lunch or be forced to eat a substandard meal in place of whatever lunch is being offered that day at the school.

Shortly after Ellison’s decision, the Minnesota Department of Education notified school districts in the state to immediately begin the process of offering the same menu to all students every day, no matter of debt status.

According to a report from Forum Communications Co., Minnesota Education Commissioner Heather Mueller applauded the opinion in an announcement of her department’s new policy. She had requested for Ellison to issue an opinion after advocates identified school districts with alternative meal policies.

“Every student deserves to be treated with dignity and fed while they’re at school,” she said in the Forum Communications report. “Differential treatment, lunch shaming or otherwise demeaning or stigmatizing the student for unpaid meal balances must not continue. We will continue to work to ensure all schools have the resources so all children have access to free meals while at school.”

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Before this ruling, the possibility of “lunch shaming” existed in Minnesota. Students who had a certain level of debt could have been subjected to handstamps, wristbands or kept from activities, such as field trips or even graduation. Also, the possibility existed that students in debt would be provided an alternate meal.

In Minnesota, there were some “troubling policies, including ‘courtesy’ meals, peanut butter sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, maybe three days of meals and credit and then no meal,” Jessica Webster, a staff attorney with a nonprofit organization called Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said in the Forum Communications report.

We can’t imagine anything more embarrassing or demeaning for a youngster than being subjected to a handstamp or receiving an alternate meal in front of peers. And that humiliation certainly would have an adverse effect on that student’s ability to concentrate or even find a modicum of enjoyment in the educational process.

And, importantly, any debt for lunch bills is not the child’s fault.

We were pleased when the Grand Forks School District, several years ago, chose to take a softer stance with lunch debt.

In 2019, we wrote “children are not tagged, banded, branded or otherwise embarrassed in front of their classmates. They also are not required to eat a replacement meal that obviously declares their family’s indebtedness. Instead, all students simply go through the lunch line and pick out whatever meal they desire. No matter the burden it places on the school district and the taxpayers, this is a compassionate approach that should be adopted by other districts.”

So then, who pays? We suppose in the end, we all will. Or perhaps sponsors can be found or fundraisers can be held.

Either way, thanks to this recent decision in Minnesota, this compassionate approach is now spreading throughout the region.

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