When students at Richfield High School in Richfield, Minnesota stood in line to buy their hot lunches, they never expected their food would get thrown away in front of them. But that’s what happened to as many as 40 students, who had balances higher than $15 on their school lunch accounts.
In a since-deleted video on the Richfield, MN Community Facebook page, cafeteria workers were captured taking hot food off of students’ trays when they reached the top of the line, throwing the food away, and handing the children cold food instead. The video of the public humiliation these students endured can be viewed in part on Minnesota NBC affiliate Kare11.
The school’s administrators took full responsibility for the incident when interviewed by Kare11. “There are multiple failures we had in this situation and our job is to fix it,” Richfield Public Schools Superintendent Steven Unowsky said. “First and foremost (in) the way we treated our kids. We should never leave kids with the feeling they had from the experience.”
Unowsky and Latanya Daniels, the school’s principal, told Kare11 what should have happened to children carrying outstanding lunch balances. “A hot lunch should never be taken away from a child,” Unowsky said. “If they have gotten into the line, and they choose something, then the conversation is no longer available, it happens at a different time.”
The balance should be recorded electronically, to avoid public embarrassment. Then a call should go to the student’s parents. A social worker, school counselor, or other administrator may then approach the student privately to talk about the debt. Daniels said children could then be “given the opportunity to bring in any amount of money to contribute to their balance.”
“One of the things we can do is model failure with grace,” Daniels said. “We absolutely failed in this situation and our team is working to try and rectify mistakes we made.”
Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar represents Richfield. In June, she and fellow Democrat Sen. Tina Smith introduced the No Shame at School Act, to prohibit public schools from shaming students who are unable to pay for school meals or who have outstanding debt.” In her introduction of the bill, Omar said, “No child should incur a debt because of their financial constraints beyond their control. Across this country, students whose families are struggling to afford school meals are being singled out and humiliated at lunchtime. These students are subjected to various shaming practices. Some have been literally branded with stamps. Others are given cheaper, less appetizing meals than the other students,” which is what happened at Richfield High School.
65% of Richfield district students are on the schools’ free lunch programs, according to Kare11. Because of this, the city of Richfield will likely have to pay a $20,000 bill in unpaid lunch fees at the end of the school year.
If you’d like to help, Richfield does have the Sunshine Meal Account. Donations are accepted there to pay off economically disadvantaged students’ lunch balances and alleviate some of the district’s debts.