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Minnesota AG's opinion affirms law banning 'lunch shaming' for schoolkids

The Minnesota Department of Education on Friday, Nov. 18, said it ordered all school districts to create a plan to provide all students with the same meals regardless of lunch debt status.

School lunch
Elijah Harding, then a second-grader at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School in Duluth, gobbles down a slice of pepperoni pizza during lunch period in this 2017 file photo. Duluth is one of the districts in Minnesota that gives kids who receive reduced price lunch a hot lunch regardless of their account status. An opinion from attorney general Keith Ellison affirms a ban established in a 2021 state law against school districts offering students with unpaid lunch balances "alternative" meals.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota schools cannot provide “alternate” meals to students with unpaid lunch debt and must serve them the same food as other students, Attorney General Keith Ellison wrote in an opinion further clarifying a state law banning “shaming” of students who cannot afford meals.

The Minnesota Department of Education on Friday, Nov. 18, said it ordered all school districts to create a plan to provide all students with the same meals regardless of lunch debt status. 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 a statement. “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.”

The Minnesota Legislature passed a law banning the practice of “lunch shaming” in 2021. The law requires that “any reminders for payment of outstanding student meal balances do not demean or stigmatize any child.” It bans schools from using handstamps, wristbands, or public lists as debt reminders, and prohibits schools from stopping students with debt from participating in school activities like graduation ceremonies or field trips.

Despite the law, a number of schools in Minnesota had policies to serve students who could not pay for food with what they described as “alternate,” “minimum” or “courtesy” meals, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

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As federal COVID-19 relief for school meals winded down earlier this year, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, one of the groups that fought for anti-lunch-shaming legislation, surveyed 330 Minnesota school districts and found that 124 had policies that violated the new statute.

“We saw a lot of troubling policies … ‘courtesy’ meals, peanut butter sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, maybe three days of meals and credit and then no meal,” said Jessica Webster, a staff attorney with the nonprofit.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid wrote a letter of concern to the state education department asking for an advisory opinion from the attorney general to clarify the state’s law. In his opinion issued Thursday, Ellison agreed with the nonprofit.

“An alternate or minimum meal could also bring negative attention, especially if alternate or minimum meals are provided for no reason other than meal debt,” he wrote. “If identifiable alternate meals are provided only or primarily to students with outstanding meal debt, these students are clearly identified among their peers as owing meal debt. As such, the practice would stigmatize a student.”

Ellison’s opinion went into effect immediately and is binding unless overturned by a judge, the education department said.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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