MINNEAPOLIS, MN — In 2014, Minnesota passed the Lunch Aid Act to end school lunch shaming – the practice of punishing or reprimanding students who are unable to pay for their meals. However, the attempt to end it wasn't fully successful, and lunch shaming continued. On July 1st, the state House and Senate returned to the topic in the Education budget, passing a bill with specific restrictions on the practice.
The handling of the issue needed reworking because lunch shaming continued in new forms. Colleen Moriarty, the Executive Director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, had heard that in general, people believed the shaming happened in isolated incidents. That was proved untrue when students with cell phones were able to record video. Moriarty said they helped expose the more frequent realities of lunch shaming.
School officials had found workarounds to the lunch shaming definition used in the 2014 bill — including punishments like keeping a student from walking at graduation or from participating in sports, or giving a student an alternate meal and dumping the one they tried to purchase. Moriarty said that when she learned that the practice continued, she and other supporters of the new bill decided that the definition for lunch shaming needed to expand.
In addition to Hunger Solutions, the bill received support from EdAllies, a Minnesota advocacy organization that works to improve education for all students in the state. Policy Director Matt Shaver said obstacles to the rollout of this legislation had to do with state resources in comparison to what is available nationally.
“At the federal level, we could just maintain, from the USDA, universal school meals. At the federal level they don’t need to set a balanced budget every two years like we do in Minnesota. One of our [Minnesota’s] biggest obstacles is just the resources to be able to do that.” said Shaver.
State Senator Karin Housley (Stillwater) authored the bill, and said different versions have been around for four years. This year, a group of activists asked if she could help move it forward. In hearing about the issue, Housley was shocked that there had not yet been more attempts to put a stop to shaming and that it was happening in the first place.
“That might have been the norm for some schools,” said Housley. “It was just so sad in how it scars going forward, for the rest of a child's life.”
The focus on COVID legislation has been an obstacle to getting the lunch shaming bill to the top of the list, but Housley says when Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Roger Chamberlain was alerted to the bill, he gave it a hearing and was quickly on board.
The bill mandates that “[any reminders for payment of outstanding student meal balances do not demean or stigmatize any child]”, and goes on to list what is not acceptable treatment.
Housley said this language was emphasized because it clearly lays out what a school official can and cannot do if a child is unable to pay for their meal. What the bill says is important, but overall, Housley wants to highlight that it is now law.
“Sometimes people let perfect get in the way of good. That could’ve been what happened with this lunch shaming— you want to get the words so perfect and make sure that all stakeholders are on board, that nothing gets done.” said Housley. Instead, she said lawmakers decided to push through what they had, “Let’s just get this language out there, get it passed, let folks know this is against the law,” Housely said.
What legislators like Housley and activists like Moriarty and Shaver hope might come next for school lunch shaming is that it comes to a full stop, meaning that the inability to pay for a school lunch is no longer followed by a stigmatizing practice or limiting reprimand. Moriarty says she would like to see it taken a step further, where families and kids don’t pay for meals at school at all.
“We don’t charge kids to take the bus, we don’t charge them for gym or for any of those other things. Children need nutrition to learn.” said Moriarty. “We need to stop chasing after children for money to pay for the food they have in school.”
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