Thanks to two state Congressman, Senator Jeff Hayden (D) and Representative Yvonne Selcer (D), thousands of Minnesota students may receive free lunches in the near future. In a state with inconsistent meal policies, a bill entitled No Child Turned Away would remedy stringent and humiliating practices currently affecting students who cannot afford to purchase school food.
No Child Turned Away aims to provide free lunches to 61,000 students who qualify for reduced-lunch programs but not free ones. At present, 250,000 students are eligible for free lunches, and 62,000 participate in reduced-price lunch policies. Nevertheless, research shows that schools across Minnesota consistently fail students in need of food assistance. A Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid survey concluded that 46 districts halted meals altogether if students had “insufficient funds in their lunch accounts,” and 166 others only served cold meals — such as cheese sandwiches — in similar instances. Shaming students who are unable to pay for food is also common practice: meals are stripped from them and thrown away, hands are often stamped with the words ‘LUNCH’ and ‘MONEY,’ and children are verbally chastised by school officials.
While the bill is officially sponsored by Hayden and Selcer, it is inspired by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and MAZON’s years’-long campaign to transform meal programs in the state’s schools. Governor Mark Dayton (D) also announced his support for free lunch; during the next legislative session, he will ask for $3.5 million to contribute to school meal programs.
Controversial lunch policies are not unique to Minnesota schools. Just last month, 40 students in a Utah elementary school watched as their lunches were thrown away. In a Colorado school, officials stamped the hands of students who were unable to purchase meals or qualified for free lunch. A Georgia Congressman also suggested that students clean floors in return for free meals. Fortunately, advocates across the country are working to ensure that all students have access to affordable food; everyone enrolled in Boston Public Schools and the Dallas Independent School District receives free meals.