The same school meals must be available to all students, regardless of whether they are behind on payments. That's because of a 2021 Minnesota law prohibiting lunch shaming and a new binding ruling from Attorney General Keith Ellison. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Minnesota schools must offer the same meals to all students, regardless of their lunch debt, Attorney General Keith Ellison has ruled.

“Minnesota law is clear: students whose families are struggling to afford their lives cannot be denied a regular school lunch or offered a substandard alternate meal in place of a regular lunch,” Ellison said in a press release from the Minnesota Department of Education.

The Department of Education praised the ruling Friday and said it had notified school districts to immediately implement policies to offer the same meals to all students.

“We know that it’s been a big stress point for families, trying to figure out how to pay for these meals on top of everything else,” said Leah Gardner, the policy director of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a nonprofit that advocates for free school meals. “So I think it’s just a huge relief.”

For two years of the pandemic, schools provided meals for free to all students. Congress did not renew funding for this school year, which means families who do not meet the income qualifications must pay for school meals again. But as inflation strains families’ finances, student lunch debt and food insecurity are rising.

The Minnesota Legislature passed a law in 2021 prohibiting “lunch shaming”— treating students with meal debt differently. The law states that schools must make sure “any reminders for payment of outstanding student meal balances do not demean or stigmatize any child.”

But since school meals were free to all children in 2021, this school year is the first time that policy has been tested, Gardner explained. This new law is the basis of Ellison’s ruling.

Jessica Webster, a staff attorney with the Legal Services Advocacy Project and Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said her organization had examined 330 school districts’ policies and identified 124 in rural, suburban and urban districts that were “deficient.” One district policy said children could not receive milk or juice for a morning snack if they had a negative balance. Another said that students with meal debt could be refused a meal.

In August, Webster sent a letter to the Minnesota Department of Education with her findings. She requested that the department ask Ellison for an advisory opinion on whether these policies were lawful. 

Under Minnesota law, the attorney general may issue legal opinions regarding public schools at the request of the education commissioner. Those opinions are binding unless a court rules otherwise. Heather Mueller, the commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education, asked Ellison for an opinion about the alternate meals.

Ellison examined school district policies that provided alternate meals to students with lunch debt. One policy said that students with outstanding debt would receive a cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit, and milk; another said those students would receive a “minimum meal” of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with milk.

He concluded that these alternate meals did not comply with the law.

“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,” he wrote. “As such, the practice would stigmatize a student.”

“We are reviewing the Attorney General’s opinion and will help our school districts with the necessary policy changes,” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, in a statement.

Webster praised the decision as an important step toward universal school meals, which she hopes the Legislature will fund next year.

“If the law is that you can’t deny a child lunch, let’s fund that lunch for all kids and not put kids in the middle and not put school districts in a financial bind,” she said.

Gardner agrees.

“We’re very hopeful that 2023 is going to be the year that we get that done, and are actually able to just provide free school meals for all kids,” she said. 

Next year, Democrats will control both chambers of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office. House Speaker Melissa Hortman told Sahan Journal earlier this week that feeding children was a DFL priority.

“When kids come to school in the morning, everybody should be able to go to the cafeteria and get a yogurt, an orange juice, and some milk to start the day off ready to learn,” she said. “When they go to lunch, they shouldn’t have different colored lunch tickets.”

The need is so urgent, Gardner says, that she would like to see a special session to fund universal school meals even before the new legislature first meets in January.

“It honestly can’t come fast enough,” she said.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...