The local Jewish community responds to a new report identifying the lunch policy of Minnesota public school districts, some of which turn away a child who can’t pay
By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
Many Minnesotans were shocked by recent news reports of 40 students in Salt Lake City who had their lunch dumped because they couldn’t afford to pay for it. But the problem is not unique to Utah; it’s been happening in Minnesota for years.
A new report released last week by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Legal Services Advocacy Project (LSAP) identifies the school lunch policy of 309 public school districts in Minnesota — 94 percent of all districts in the state — regarding how students are treated if they cannot pay for their lunch.
MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger is supporting efforts in Minnesota to eliminate the fee for reduced-price lunch for school students. (Photo: Courtesy of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger)
Just 32 percent of districts will feed a child regardless of their ability to pay, while more than half of districts (53 percent) provide an alternative lunch option, such as a cheese sandwich. But others — 46 districts in Minnesota — refuse to feed the child at all, sometimes even pulling the child’s tray in front of fellow students.
The report, titled “It’s Not Just Utah: Minnesota Lunch Rooms Also Refuse Hot Lunch to Children,” was released just after the national media reported on the students in Salt Lake City.
Jessica Webster, an LSAP staff attorney who authored the report with support from MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, has been working on this issue in Minnesota for more than six years; it first came to the forefront at a summit on hunger at Adath Jeshurun Congregation.
“One of the things that came out of that summit was that some students were not getting hot lunches, they were getting these alternative meals or these cheese sandwiches,” Webster told the AJW. “I think everybody was really shocked and horrified at this cheese sandwich policy. But what we didn’t know at that time was that actually there were kids getting turned away with nothing. So that was the impetus way back when to start getting involved in this work.”
Webster wrote a similar report three years ago that used a smaller, volunteer sampling of Minnesota school districts. This recent report is much more comprehensive, using formal requests for information under the Data Practices Act (Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 13).
“We had three very specific questions that we asked the districts to answer, so that they knew exactly which children we were talking about, they knew exactly the circumstance that we were asking about and we were asking exactly about what their practices and policies were for these kids,” Webster said.
Over the last two years, Webster has received increasing support from MAZON and local members of the MAZON Advocacy Project–Minnesota (MAP-MN) — 233 individual members and 35 partner organizations — who are working with her to advocate for change at the state legislature.
In 2013, MAP-MN identified this issue as the one on which it wanted to focus its efforts, and co-sponsored a bill that would have removed the mandatory school lunch co-payment of $0.40 per meal for up to 61,500 low-income Minnesotan children — essentially expanding the free lunch program to those students who qualify for reduced price lunches (3-1-13 AJW).
“We’ve worked very hard to get bipartisan support, to get support in the metro area and out state, to try and build some alliances to get this done,” Rabbi Harold Kravitz, of Adath Jeshurun Congregation, who also chairs MAZON’s national board of directors, told the AJW last March.
The bill did not pass last year (7-5-13 AJW), but funding for the initiative can still be allocated in this year’s supplemental budget. The state is projected to have a budget surplus — forecasted to be as much as $1 billion — and could cover the $3.35 million per year necessary to ensure that all children receive a healthy school lunch.
Governor Mark Dayton has pledged support for the plan, but the state legislature will make the final decision on what is included in the budget.
“It’s really promising, but $1 billion goes fast because there’s a lot of different issues,” Kravitz told the AJW last week. “It’s really wonderful to hear the governor say that yes, this would be a priority in the supplemental budget, as did the Speaker of the House Paul Thiesen.”
Both Kravitz and Webster stressed that the issue has received broad, bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.
Kravitz said that there has been “a lot of denial about the extent of the problem” and sees the efforts of MAZON and MAP-MN as a way of raising awareness.
“There is a certain level of politics. People always give lip service to the idea that people shouldn’t be hungry, kids shouldn’t be hungry, and yet there are policies in place and decisions that get made in huge budgets at the state level where these are the results,” Kravitz said. “And despite people’s good intentions, these problems exist. So it’s very exciting to develop a core group of people who are learning about these issues.”
And Webster said the efforts of MAP-MN members have been vital to advancing her work.
“MAZON and the Jewish community has really invested so much time and energy in supporting this effort and it’s really been critical, it’s game-changing,” she said. “We’ve had a presence and it’s a presence we haven’t had before. We packed a hearing room last year, and in years past, it’s just been me. That makes a difference.”
A tentative hearing in the Senate has been set for March 5. A hearing in the House has not yet been scheduled.
“We’ve heard that there is support from House leadership and again we have bipartisan support, we’re in the governor’s budget, so all signs are looking good on this bill for this year,” Webster said. “But it’s never a done deal until it’s a done deal.”
To read the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid Report, visit: http://mylegalaid.org/news/article/minnesota-lunch-rooms-refuse-hot-lunch-to-children.
Beth El Synagogue will host a Food Summit on March 23, during which Rabbi Harold Kravitz will offer “Jewish Perspectives on Hunger in Our Community.”
(American Jewish World, 2.28.14)