An estimated 70 percent of Minnesota schools deny students hot lunch either immediately or after a number of warnings if they can't pay for them.
A survey by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid reported if a student has insufficient funds in his or her lunch account, most schools in the state will either offer a certain level of account deficit, offer something like a cheese sandwich alternative or just dump the hot food in the garbage.
"Everyone else is surprised that this is happening, but we've known this is happening for awhile," said Jessica Webster, with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.
Of the 309 responding public school districts -- 94 percent of all statewide -- 31 percent always provide the student a hot meal.
15% (46 districts) either immediately or eventually refuse to serve hot lunch or an alternative meal to a child who cannot pay.
54% (166 districts) offer less nutritious alternative meals instead of a hot lunch or turning the child away
31% (97 districts) always provide a full menu-of-the-day hot lunch to a low-income child even if the child cannot afford it.
Of the 15 percent who immediately or eventually refuse, a refusal usually follows some level of deficit in the lunch account. Most districts allowed a small number of meals on credit or a certain number of alternative meals before refusing the student lunch.
Some districts only turn away middle or high school students, some turn away students of all ages.
A few districts reported pulling trays and dumping the food in the trash when the student reaches the register.
The 54 percent who offer an alternative meal typically serve a cheese or peanut butter sandwich. Many districts allow a small number of hot meals on credit before resorting to an alternative meal, however.
Some districts also served a butter sandwich while a few served a deli meat sandwich. A few districts said they attempted to provide the alternative meal in a discreet manner, usually by delivering a brown sack lunch to the student's classroom before lunch.
ALWAYS A HOT MEAL
Some districts in the 31 percent who always provide a hot lunch to a low-income student even if the student can't afford the fee said that lunch may be the only meal the student eats that day.
"Kids are tired," Debora Brooks, at Andersen United Community School, said. "Kids are not focused when they're hungry. So, we just eliminate that."
STOPPING STUDENT STIGMA
Although many district representatives that spoke with Fox 9 News said there are usually warnings before lunch alternatives or denials take place, some of those attempts are also drawing scrutiny.
"It's a stigmatizing practice," Webster contends. "Some districts think that when they stamp a kid with an animal or a smiley face, it's a reminder to parents -- but when you get a stamp that says money or lunch, it's embarrassing."
GOV. DAYTON REACTS
Shortly after the survey's release, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed providing additional funding in the upcoming legislative session for student lunches.
"No child in Minnesota should be denied a healthy lunch," Gov. Dayton said in a news release. "We cannot expect our students to succeed on an empty stomach. I look forward to working with the legislature to make this issue a priority in the upcoming legislative session, and fully fund the bill authored by Sen. Jeff Hayden and Rep. Yvonne Selcer."
Dayton committed to including $3.5 million in his supplemental budget proposal so students can receive hot lunches.
REP. SELCER THANKS DAYTON
After the governor voiced his support for her bill, Rep. Yvonne Selcer released the following statement to say she is looking forward to working to get it passed.
"I thank Governor Dayton for his support of my legislation to fully fund hot school lunches for Minnesota children whose families cannot afford reduced-price meals. Through my experience as a school board member and more importantly, as a mom, I know it's hard for kids to learn when they're hungry. Too many kids get their only whole meal of the day at school. These meals provide an important lifeline for children suffering the adverse effects of poverty. Our K-12 schools should be a place where every child feels safe and valued, no matter their family circumstances. I look forward to working with Governor Dayton and legislators across the aisle to get this bill passed and signed into law this legislative session."