For years, some Minnesota schools threw hot meals in the trash rather than feed a child who owed them money.
For years, Philando Castile dug into his own pocket to make sure no child in his cafeteria line, at least, left hungry.
For years, there was bipartisan, statewide agreement that Minnesota needed a change of law, or a change of heart, to ban lunch shaming forever.
While everyone was agreeing that someone should do something, lunch debts mounted. Cash-strapped schools yanked trays, dumped lunches, or sent students away with cold cheese sandwiches or a warning stamp or sticker for their parents and classmates to see. Unpaid lunch debts barred children from field trips and kept graduates from walking across the stage to pick up their diplomas.
And Mr. Phil, the kind cafeteria supervisor, wasn't here to help. Gunned down at a traffic stop in Falcon Heights for no good reason. His death broadcast to a horrified world on Facebook Live. His killer acquitted.
The Minnesota Legislature changed the law last week, banning lunch shaming for good, five years to the day after he died.
Later that day in St. Paul, mourners marched and sang and spelled his name across the gates of the governor's residence in giant letters: 4 PHILANDO.
"There is no way this man right here, Philando Castile, should be forgotten," his mother, Valerie Castile, told supporters who gathered in the rain for a vigil at the site of his killing.
For years, Valerie Castile has worked to keep his memory a blessing. The family established the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, to help victims of gun and police violence, and to look out for the kids in the lunch line and beyond. Before the pandemic, the foundation paid off the lunch debt of every student in St. Paul and wiped the cafeteria debts for graduating seniors in Robbinsdale.
"His mom should not have had to do that," said Jessica Webster, a staff attorney for Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, who worked with state lawmakers for years on the language that finally passed during last week's special session. Making sure children had enough to eat took on new urgency during the pandemic. New federal emergency funds will ensure that student meals are as free as their desks or textbooks until 2022.
There's never really been anyone rooting for the idea of tossing a hungry child's meal in the trash. But it doesn't take much for a good bill to go nowhere.
"For so long, we've had bipartisan support, we've had the support of the governor, we've had the support of the people, we've had the support of the schools," Webster said. "There was no opposition, but there was always some wrinkle."
Lawmakers and policymakers have been trying to do away with lunch shaming since before 2014, when the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid Legal Services Advocacy Project issued a blistering report on the state of the state's lunchrooms. That year, almost half of Minnesota schools had policies in place to punish students whose parents didn't settle their tab. By 2019, after the state expanded the free lunch program and lawmakers applied pressure, only a small fraction still had written lunch shaming policies. But unpaid lunchroom debt in some districts topped six figures, and schools repeatedly resorted to drastic measures to balance the books, from lunch dumping to sending in bill collectors.
Now the bill everyone wanted to pass has passed. State lawmakers laid down the law. No lunch dumping. No handing a cold butter sandwich to a child with an outstanding lunch debt. No banning students from field trips, or extracurricular activities, or graduation. Conversations about billing must stay between the school and the parents. Leave the child out of it.
We "are well on our way to ending lunch shaming in Minnesota," state Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said in a statement after the bill cleared the Senate.
Too many Minnesota children already know how it feels to have their lunch dumped in front of the whole cafeteria, or to walk home with a stamp on their arm that tells the whole world that mommy and daddy don't pay their bills.
"These are moments a child will never forget," Housley said. It "is my hope that no student will ever have to experience this traumatic shaming ever again."
On Tuesday, as lawmakers ended one act of unnecessary cruelty, Castile stood on the governor's doorstep and wept as she described the path the bullets tore through her son's body. For years, she's asked for justice. For years, more grieving mothers have joined her on these marches.
Her foundation has spent thousands of dollars to protect strangers' children from pain. She shouldn't have to give so much back to a world that took so much from her.
At the very least, she shouldn't have to do it alone.
For more information about the Philando Castile Relief Foundation, visit philandocastilefoundation.org.
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