Our View: Feed the kids, but don't let parents game the system
It's a scene worthy of a Charles Dickens novel. Elementary students, behind on their meal payments, have their lunches publicly taken away and dumped in the trash in full view of their classmates.
A school in Utah recently gained national attention for throwing lunches in the trash if students couldn't pay. Just this week, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid released a report, headlined "It's Not Just Utah," revealing that 46 of the 309 school districts responding to a survey indicated they at least claim the option of refusing to feed students who don't pay.
More than half of the districts in the state — 166 of them — provide an alternative meal, usually a peanut butter or cold cheese sandwich, when the money runs out. Another 96 school districts, including the Rochester public schools, provide a hot lunch regardless of a child's ability to pay.
In October 2011, Rochester ended the practice of giving students a cheese sandwich and milk in lieu of a full lunch when their account fell into a deficit. Rochester Superintendent Michael Muñoz made the policy change after learning that a student with a delinquent account had a hot meal taken away and replaced with a cheese sandwich.
"I have a problem with punishing little ones for something that their parents are responsible for," Muñoz said at the time.
So do we. Children shouldn't be penalized and embarrassed publicly for their parents' fiscal negligence, whether it was deliberate or an honest oversight.
"Rochester Public Schools has procedures and policies in place regarding our lunch fund balances," the school district said in a prepared statement in response to the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid report. "We are one of 96 districts in Minnesota that will not deny lunch to our students if they cannot afford the co-pay. Superintendent Muñoz, as well as his administration, is very passionate about all students. He puts the needs of the students first and truly makes sure that Rochester Public Schools is fostering a safe and welcoming learning environment for all of our students."
Last May, the Rochester School Board discussed that unpaid student lunch accounts cost the district more than $13,000. The district didn't disclose how much of that deficit was caused by missed co-pays for reduced-price lunches and how much was from families obligated to pay full price.
Efforts to collect the lunch money begin with reminder notes and then progress from letters to phone calls to contact by social workers. Once all those interventions have been exhausted, the most chronically delinquent accounts are sent to a collection agency as a last resort.
That's a fair and humane way of dealing with unpaid student lunch accounts. Board member Anne Becker noted that by the time the district turned over a delinquent account to a collection agency, it would have tried to contact the family seven times.
The report by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, a legal services advocacy project for low-income families, brought a swift response from Gov. Mark Dayton, who promised to support legislation guaranteeing a nutritious lunch to every child in Minnesota schools. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Yvonne Selcer, of Minnetonka, and Sen. Jeff Hayden, of Minneapolis, both DFLers, would extend free lunch to the 61,500 students who now pay 40 cents per meal.
Three similar bills were introduced in each chamber last year, but inexplicably, none of the measures made it out of committee. With all the adverse publicity surrounding pulled lunch trays, that won't happen this year.
And this legislation makes sense. Families with documented financial challenges shouldn't have to worry about coming up with $6 per week for three kids to eat school lunches. Conversely, we have no problem with schools using collection agencies against families that don't quality for reduced-price lunches — or who haven't bothered trying to qualify — yet take advantage of a district's "everyone eats" policy.
Schools should feed the kids and do nothing to embarrass or humiliate them. Where necessary, go after the parents who game the system. There always will be some level of breakage, but that's the cost of providing a quality public education.