Schools that offer an alternate meal, such as a cold cheese sandwich, to students with lunch debt are violating state law, according to an opinion issued Thursday by Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Education Commissioner Heather Mueller requested the opinion, writing that some school districts in the state still deny students meals off the standard menu until their families’ debts are paid, even after the Legislature passed a law last year banning lunch shaming.
One section of the relevant statute says schools “must ensure that any reminders for payment of outstanding student meal balances do not demean or stigmatize any child participating in the school lunch program, including but not limited to dumping meals, withdrawing a meal that has been served, announcing or listing students’ names publicly, or affixing stickers, stamps, or pins.”
Ellison wrote that it’s not clear whether an alternative meal would “demean or stigmatize” in violation of that part of the law; whether it does or does not is the education commissioner’s to make.
But the same statute also prohibits schools from limiting student participation in “any school activities, graduation ceremonies, field trips, athletics, activity clubs, or other extracurricular activities or access to materials, technology, or other items provided to students due to an unpaid student meal balance.”
Ellison wrote that denying access to the school’s scheduled meal would violate that section of the law.
“Even if there is no actual stigma associated with an alternate meal, the broad prohibition against limiting access to a wide variety of school activities includes access to the scheduled menu as an ‘other item provided to students,’” he wrote.
By law, the education commissioner can send a noncompliance letter to any school district that violates the law, and the district has 60 days to change its practice. Department spokesman Kevin Burns said Mueller hasn’t sent any such letters.
However, the department said it informed school districts on Friday that they must update their policies to comply with the law.
“Every student deserves to be treated with dignity and fed while they’re at school. Differential treatment, lunch shaming or otherwise demeaning or stigmatizing the student for unpaid meal balances must not continue,” Mueller said in a news release.
This school year provides the first test for school districts to comply with the law. That’s because Congress provided free school lunches to all students each of the last two school years because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, free school meals are offered only to students from low-income families. This year, the annual income limit is $42,606 for a family of two and $51,338 for a family of four.