See more of the story

State leaders hope to put a halt once and for all to incidents of lunch shaming in Minnesota schools by making clear which actions will not be tolerated when students fall behind on lunch payments.

No pulling back of meals, no affixing of stickers or pins, and certainly no in-your-face throwaways.

The details are part of a new state education finance bill passed last week that put a finer point on 2014 legislation saying schools could not "demean or stigmatize" students over unpaid lunch debts.

"These are moments a child will never forget," state Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said in comments published by the Senate Republican Caucus. "Now that we have passed this critical language, it is my hope that no student will ever have to experience this traumatic shaming ever again."

State Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said she, too, was grateful for the "common sense" measure.

"We know that hunger can negatively impact a student's ability to learn, and quite simply, no child deserves to be hungry — especially in our schools," she said during a briefing on the bill. "Our lunchrooms are an extension of the classroom and set students up for academic success."

Whether a district slips up and requires the commissioner to intervene should not be an issue anytime soon.

The Biden administration announced this spring that it will allow districts nationwide to continue offering free meals to all students through June 2022. Under the plan, districts will receive higher-than-normal meal reimbursements for every meal they serve, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture news release.

The free meals would be an extension of the free summertime fare funded each year by the federal government.

"We are participating," Pepe Barton, a spokesman for the South Washington County Schools, said of free meals in the coming year. "There are no issues for reimbursement and no local subsidies that we're aware of since it's a federal program."

Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, will be offering free meals through next school year, as well, said Noah Atlas, the district's child nutrition director.

He said districts often have to grapple with what to do about debts and related pressure on the general fund, but that Anoka-Hennepin has complied with no-shaming measures as outlined in the new bill.

"It was good to see it pass," he said.

Efforts to ensure students have access to meals without shaming have been championed in the state House by Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove. But even after high-profile incidents in Stewartville and Richfield during which hot entrees were taken from students, action to strengthen the legislation took three sessions to become law.

This year's bill was promoted by the groups Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, EdAllies and Hunger Solutions Minnesota, and by the Minnesota Partners to End Hunger coalition.

In addition to no longer engaging in any onsite shaming, districts also are prohibited from limiting student participation in graduation ceremonies, field trips or other extracurricular activities over unpaid debts.

If a district treats students disrespectfully, the commissioner must send a letter of noncompliance requiring corrective action within 60 days, the bill states.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109