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MINNEAPOLIS -- Governor Mark Dayton is calling on state legislators to add $3.5 million to the school lunch budget in the state, so that children who now pay a reduced price for meals will be able to get them FOR free.

Dayton made his remarks Tuesday in the wake of a statewide survey of school districts by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, showing that some districts deny food to children who are behind on lunch payments.

"No child in Minnesota should be denied a healthy lunch," Gov. Dayton said in a prepared statement.

"We cannot expect our students to succeed on an empty stomach."

Dayton endorsed a bill authored last session by Rep. Yvonne Selcer of Minnetonka in the House and Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis in the Senate.

Students from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level qualify for free lunches already. That level is roughly $25,000 for a family of four.

Children from families between 130 percent and 185 percent of poverty level, or $36,000 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced price lunch. Those students are expected to pay 40 cents per meal out of pocket currently in most school districts.

"These are very poor kids and we have the resources," Jessica Webster, the Legal Aid attorney who wrote the report summing up the survey of schools, told KARE.

"There is no reason to punish children in this way."

The Legal Aid study found that 46 districts in the state have policies, at least on paper, that allow cafeteria staff to withhold lunch from students who have fallen behind on those lunch payments.

The majority of schools, a total of 166 districts, told Legal Aid that they give peanut butter or cheese sandwiches and milk to students who stop paying, rather than the full fledged hot meal at lunch.

"I would argue that is by no means a nutritionally balanced meal for a kid, and the federal government agrees with that because we've had all of these healthy mandates come down," Webster said.

Another subset of 97 districts, including the Minneapolis Public Schools, have decided to provide hot lunches to all children who are eligible for reduced price lunch regardless of whether the children are making payments. In fact, in Minneapolis the school board decided to go ahead an absorb that 40 cent per meal cost of feeding students who only eligible for reduced price lunches.

Webster has been working on the school lunch issue for six years but the idea has gotten very little traction at the legislature.

But in January story out of Utah drew national attention to the issue of cafeteria finances. Cafeteria workers at a Salt Lake City school were ordered to pull lunches away from 40 children who had already gone through the line only to discover their lunch money accounts were empty. Because the food had already been served it had to be thrown in the trash, in keeping with food safety regulations.

"People didn't want to believe the same thing is happening here, but it is," Webster remarked.

"Maybe it's not 40 children in one cafeteria on the same day, but it's children all over the state who have to deal with this through no fault of their own."

She also decried the practice, which still exists in some schools, of stamping the word "money" and "lunch" on children's hands as a way to alert parents that their lunch money accounts are depleted.

Two of the districts that made the list of 46, the Osseo Schools and the West Saint Paul - Mendota Heights Schools, took issue with the Legal Aid survey's description.

Barb Olson of the Osseo Schools said that the district policy, in writing, sounds as though students can be denied meals. But she said in reality no child in Osseo is ever turned away without some type of lunch such as a sandwich and piece of fruit.

Carrie Hilger of the West St. Paul Schools said children never have to worry about having their lunch trays pulled back, but they may be fed an alternative lunch such as a sandwich and milk rather than that day's regular menu selection.

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