Every so often the issue of “lunch shaming” makes it into national or state news as schools grapple with the diligent way to respond when students don’t have money to pay for school lunch.
In 2014, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid found 53 percent of Minnesota schools provided alternate meals — such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or cheese sandwich — and 15 percent provided no meal to students whose meal accounts were in the negative. A follow up this summer found 13 percent offer an alternative meal and no schools offer no meal. Minnesota law prohibits schools from withholding diplomas for lunch debt, a practice used by some schools in the United States. Schools are required by the United States Department of Agriculture to try and collect meal debt.
Change came as parents pushed back against the shame alternate lunches brought to young students hyper-conscious of the perception from their classmates.
At Hutchinson Public Schools, students are always offered a full meal.
“It is going to be a better day for them as far as learning and behavior if they have a meal,” said Lesli Mueller, director of child nutrition for the district. “If they don’t have a meal, you are going to run into the opposite.”
A typical lunch at Hutchinson schools includes a variety of options.
“We offer things in all five food groups,” Mueller said. “In order for it to be a compliant meal, they have to take three of the five components we offer. And they have to include a half cup of fruit or vegetables. Anything in that pattern is considered a meal.”
Even students whose accounts may be in the red are provided that lunch. Additional items, such as seconds and ala cart items not on the menu, are not included.
“It’s not a minimal meal, they have quite a number of offerings,” Mueller said. “We don’t turn anybody down.”
She said that sometimes families are not aware of the school’s free or reduced-price meal option programs, which are funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and the state. Other times, families don’t apply because they think they will not qualify.
“It doesn’t hurt to fill out the form,” Mueller said. “What do you have to lose? Some think they won’t qualify because of some situation, but you don’t know unless you fill it out.”
The school’s form can be found online at tinyurl.com/yy9223pr. Staff at the school lunch office can also help with the form if finding it online is a barrier.
Mueller said Hutchinson Public Schools wants to start rolling out an after-school meal program, but USDA guidelines require such programs come with a student enrichment opportunity, and after school athletics do not count alone. Mueller said administrators are looking at which buildings have daily after-school programs that would meet the criteria.
“We might start at the high school to get our grounding,” Mueller said. “But we hope to do it in (Park Elementary, Hutchinson Middle School and Hutchinson High School) at some point.”
She hopes to launch the program at Hutchinson High School this fall.
The school already offers a free breakfast program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“We want to get the kids off to a good start in their day,” Mueller said, “so they are ready to learn and not distracted, and behavior won’t get in the way.”