November 21, 2017 — As the dedicated professionals planning, preparing and serving healthy meals to nourish Minnesota students, Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) members are deeply concerned about any occurrence that violates current state laws against demeaning or stigmatizing in the cafeteria.

Any individual case is not acceptable and MSNA members urge the MN Department of Education to work with school nutrition contractors and school districts to ensure the laws that have been put in place are enforced.

Meal charges and unpaid meal debt are complex issues and there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but policies are in place to prevent these situations from negatively impacting the student.

We first need to make sure that all families who qualify for free or reduced price meals are receiving those benefits. Federal funds cover the cost of meals for low-income students that qualify for the free and reduced meal program, but non-eligible students must pay full price for their meals.  There is a balance that can respect those students while preventing escalating unpaid meal debts, a serious burden for many school meal programs, which operate independently of school district funds and rely on sales to cover food and labor costs.

To address meal charges, USDA mandated all schools have a meal charge policy in place by July 2017, encouraging them to “allow children to receive the nutrition they need to stay focused during the school day, minimize identification of children with insufficient funds to pay for school meals, and maintain the financial integrity of the nonprofit school food service account.”

School nutrition professionals, anti-hunger advocates, school communities and legislators must all work together to enforce effective policies that ensure compassion for students and emphasize open communication with families without driving school meal program debt.